A man with a severe burn to his chest. Another with a gash to the head. A woman in labor. A body on the ground.
The scene near the Air National Guard base on Minuteman Road in Patton Township was filled with trauma — and that was the point.
Pamela Lawson, Penn State’s nursing program campus coordinator for University Park, brought her graduating seniors into the field, literally, for a disaster-response training course. It was the kind of thing that couldn’t happen anywhere else.
Students took turns as some served as patients in one simulation, medical personnel in the next. In one disaster, they provided direct care. In the next, they were triage.
The disasters were varied.
“We had all kinds. We did a bus rollover. There was a train derailment,” Lawson said.
In each simulation, appropriate wounds were assigned. Synthetic silicone “injuries” were applied to the victims. An eyeball dangling from nerves was taped to one girl’s face. Another had ropes of intestines hanging from her shirt.
It wasn’t just for a Halloween-like horror effect. Lawson said the simulations help new nurses respond to the kind of pre-hospital injuries they might not see until they are in an emergency situation.
They also helped them categorize the injuries. Learning triage, the sometimes necessary process of prioritizing treatment not just by severity but by treatability, can be critical for jobs such as emergency room nurses, disaster response personnel and military medical units.
For this exercise, students assigned green cards to minor injuries, yellow to those more troublesome but able to wait, and red to the most serious, yet treatable injuries. Black cards did not just go to those that were playing dead, but those whose injuries were not able to be helped at the time. Lawson said that meant reassessing the idea of what was treatable. A simple heart attack might be handled quickly in the hospital, but was a death sentence in the middle of one of the disaster scenarios.
“This is stuff that has to be hands-on,” said student Ryan Prebola. “You have to see it to try it.”
For Vanessa Spamer, appreciating the manpower the response required had the most impact. Rachel Westernik said it was harder at first, but with each new disaster scenario, the group got better and faster.
Lawson said it was just as important for the students to get a feeling for being the person on the ground.
“They need to know what it’s like to be a patient,” she said.