As nursing students walked into a room in Sacajawea Hall on the Lewis-Clark State College campus Friday, they were told to imagine themselves in an emergency shelter set up in the gymnasium of Kamiah Elementary School.

The scripted scenario was simple: The students needed to take care of a withdrawn evacuee who was recently forced from her home after lightning strikes sparked fires nearby.

But the task at hand proved more difficult as the future nurses, in groups of two, had to find a way to connect with the LCSC theater students, who embodied the persona of an overwhelmed patient named Kelly Norman, a recent transplant to Kamiah.

The disaster simulation, now in its 20th year, provides the nursing students with an example of an experience they could one day face in their careers. It also forces the students to put their interpersonal skills to the test.

“I think a big part of this is figuring out they need to relate to the person that’s in front of them,” said Julie Cary, the director of simulation-based education at Washington State University.

Cary and her colleague Daniel Haley were brought in to oversee the simulation through a partnership formed by LCSC and WSU.

“It’s not about the technical aspects of their job as a nurse. It’s about building that relationship and helping support this person,” Cary said.

The nursing students, all seniors, had gone through simulations before, but this was their first time in a scenario that centered on a disaster and also the first that included a person who pretended to be their patient.

Mary Lou Robinson, a nursing professor at LCSC, said the exercise requires the students to implement active listening skills as they focus on subtle messages the actors try to portray.

“You cannot establish trust with any kind of client, unless as a nurse you are able to listen and really hear what they are saying,” Robinson said. “We’re teaching that, at first, you must listen before you can be heard…. Most people don’t have that particular skill, so we think that it is vitally important that we teach it.”

The nursing program often utilizes high-fidelity mannequins. From an adjoining room, teachers can speak through the mannequins, while students assess their vital signs. When the mannequin is replaced with an actor, the students receive a more authentic experience.

“It’s so different that we weren’t focusing on fixing their medical problems, but we were learning that sometimes to help someone you just have to key in and be able to notice that they need to talk to you,” said nursing student Mesa Heimerdinger.

Along with guidance from instructors who oversaw the interactions, the nursing students also received structured feedback from the actors.

Nursing student David Hibard said that although he has experience in the mental health fields, the exercise provided him with a learning opportunity and also challenged him.

“This is beneficial because it can be more difficult at times to make a connection with someone who is acting as opposed to someone who is really (dealing with mental health issues,)” Hibard said. “You have to focus in on key things they are saying.”

Nancy Lee-Painter, a theater professor theater at LCSC, said that while the simulation helps the nursing students, it’s also a good experience for the actors, who get to further practice their craft.

“Being a simulated client is a good gig, especially in big cities with teaching hospitals,” Lee-Painter said.

The disaster simulation takes place every semester as part of LCSC’s Community Health Nursing course taught by Robinson and nursing professor Tracy Flynn.

The nursing students are scheduled to graduate next semester, Robinson said.

Tomtas may be contacted at jtomtas@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2294. Follow her on Twitter @jtomtas.

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