I recently attended a lesson at the clinical skills centre at Little France – I wanted to see students working with simulation models – dummies, in other words. The point of clinical skills is to get some hands-on experience in a scenario as similar to life as design ingenuity and latex technology can get you. And these days, that’s startlingly close.
The room was the size of a small ward, even had curtains and rails to divide the space into a three bedded unit. That’s not what you notice first, though, since you’ve just stepped into what looks like a charnel house. There are single arms everywhere, resting on bloodstained pads (as a dog owner, I recognise these as ‘puppy pads’ a central but largely useless part of canine toilet training – I’m glad they've found another purpose). In the old days, apparently, you practiced your syringe skills on oranges. Now we have disconcertingly lifelike arms with veins you can inject into or draw from. The blood is a jollier, more fluorescent red than the real stuff. Each arm has a bag of it attached by tubing, giving the impression that someone has just stepped away from trying to revive it.
Around the edge of the room, a selection of anatomically detailed lower torsos sit on the countertop. I wipe the unbidden image of an Amsterdam sex shop window from my mind. The class I'm attending is a speedy overview of pregnancy and childbirth given by the cool-headed Carol Brown, who has brought many of these female parts with her, some in a box branded with the name of Adam, Rouilly, who specialise in such things. The box is printed with the jaunty strapline Limbs and Things. A lone male bottom is incongruously stranded amongst the female parts, very obviously waiting to have his prostate felt. Carol puts him aside.
She props up an entire pregnant female torso, and with a whisk of her wrist pulls down the outer skin to reveal an amazing sight: a full-term baby inside a see-through sac with placenta attached. There is pump to control the inflation level inside the sac, so that manual examination of the belly will be as near life as possible. Some speakers are fitted to reproduce foetal heartbeat sounds. It is both ingenious and oddly beautiful.
The first year students and I practice internal examinations, then deliver the model of a baby through a skeletal pelvis, then a fleshed-out dummy. Between tries, students absentmindedly cuddle or rock the plastic newborn. I even learn something about neonatal resuscitation. Although the lesson is intended as an overview, so persuaded am I by the experience of hands on dummy-nursing, I go away with a delusional idea that if someone went into labour in the aisle of Sainsburys, I might be of some help. A little learning, as they say.
Adam, Rouilly’s website is absolutely fascinating, with an overlay of weirdness for the casual visitor. The list of simulation models makes it clear that this kind of virtual practice concentrates on the more intrusive tasks – injections, intubation, catherisation, internal examinations, suctioning. Ideally, nursing and medical students can use them to come to terms with the basic mechanics of the thing, so that, when it comes to dealing with living patients (I was going to say breathing patients, but some of these models do breathe) they can focus on the person as much as the task.
But – and it’s not a huge but, because I can see the good of all this. But. Look at the picture below. As the mannequins become more sophisticated, could it be that healthcare professionals might start to compare us unfavourably with these plastic people – uncomplaining, unopinionated, can’t use the internet, don’t mind waiting for hours, extremely high pain threshold. The students have time to discuss things amongst themselves as these attractive ladies wait in wistful silence, putting the patient back into patients.
All photographs courtesy of Adam, Rouilly