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By Emma Liem, Editor-in-Chief

This summer, Lee University's School of Nursing added a new piece of technology to its repertoire: a fully automated birth simulator.

The hyper-realistic SimMom manikin, affectionately dubbed "Natalie" by nursing students and faculty, is housed in a birthing lab on the second floor of the Dixon Center, Professional Practice Coordinator Shannon McBrayer said.

'[She's] the best kept secret on campus,' McBrayer said. 'She gives birth as close to real life as possible.'

The SimMom model is a cutting-edge mechanical patient simulator created by Laerdal, a company specializing in state-of-the-art simulation technology. The birth simulator was ordered along with several other semi-automated adult and infant manikins.

For nursing students like sophomore Brooke Groff, working with Natalie can help prepare for a career as a labor and delivery nurse.

'The day we saw all of the manikins was like Christmas,' Groff said. 'Last year we started off very basic and were [studying] chemistry, anatomy and the foundations of nursing'but now to actually have these manikins and hospital beds is so exciting because [we're] finally stepping into the role we've all been waiting to get involved in.'

McBrayer said Natalie is fully equipped with a birth canal and five and a half pound manikin baby inside her abdomen, as well as fake amniotic fluid and blood that can be released during delivery.

Natalie can also be programmed to speak, either through preprogrammed statements logged into the device's computer system or by a professor speaking through a headset, McBrayer said. A microphone can also be clipped to the manikin's hospital gown, allowing the professor to hear students' replies even when not in the room.

'We have little sim pads that control different sounds [for the mannequins],' McBrayer said. 'She can say 'yes' or 'no', cry, shout, cough, and a lot of [other sounds too].'

Lab facilitators can simulate labor by programming how many contractions the manikin will display into a computer that is synced with the device, as well as how many pushes it will take before the birth is complete.

'While she's in active labor she's hooked up to the monitor so you can watch her contractions' see the fetal heart tones on the screen, and you can hear bowel sounds,' McBrayer said. 'We basically press a few buttons, and out pops a baby!'

The baby is delivered with a faux and re-attachable umbilical cord that students must cut upon delivery, and is followed by a fake placenta.

Dean Sara Campbell of the School of Nursing said that despite the manikin's perceived novelty, this type of technology is actually the norm for most nursing programs.

'It's an area of [education] that really started growing about eight years ago,' Campbell said. 'I'd say that [if at this point] you don't have some kind of simulation you're really behind. Everyone has some form of this [technology] now, it just depends to what degree they have it.'

Campbell also explained that working with patient simulators like Natalie provides students with the same level of hands-on experience they would gain from working in real life clinical environments.

'There was a big study that just came out from some of the top nursing schools that [shows] that nursing students who [learn] with simulators are just as skilled as those who had all clinical,' Campbell said.

Campbell explained that these findings are significant not only because it further legitimizes the practice, but because it allows nursing programs like Lee's the opportunity for growth.

'Clinical sites can be hard to get into because you can only take a certain number of [students] in [the hospital setting], and that's one of the problems that keeps nursing schools from being able to expand,' Campbell said.

McBrayer said that nursing students at Lee begin a ten-week clinical experience during their third year of the program. The clinical period includes five weeks of practice with patient simulators, followed by five weeks of working in local hospitals.

'We go to SkyRidge [Medical Center] right down the road and we also go to Erlanger East Hospital [in Chattanooga] to do outreach and community work,' McBrayer said. '[The students] are also shadowing school nurses and doing newborn check-ups and child-check ups at Peerless Pediatrics, as well as learning about immunizations and how to do injections.'

Senior Bryn Dawdy is thrilled at the opportunity to work with real patients at Erlanger East as an undergrad.

'My first five weeks of clinical I will be working with community health and then moving into the hospital for my OB rotation,' Dawdy said. 'It's been incredible to see the Lord work [and] I know we will all learn so much from being in such a good hospital setting'. I can't wait to put everything I have learned in my classes and labs into practice.'

Campbell believes there are real advantages for both instructors and students in using patient simulators before beginning clinicals in a real-world environment,

'[Students] can make an error and it won't be as critical, so it allows a whole new type of learning environment where you can learn and then go back and debrief with [the team]' about what the consequences were,' Campbell said. 'Plus, when the person asks if you've done it before, you can say 'yes I have!' '.

McBrayer echoed this sentiment, and said she values the opportunities for hands-on experience the manikins provide.

'You can talk about [concepts] all day long, but [when] you come over here and you touch it, feel it, hear it and learn how to raise and lower the side rails on the beds and things like that ' that's when you start seeing [students'] light bulbs go off.'

McBrayer also explained that a controlled simulation can allow for a holistic educational experience that real-world clinicals cannot always provide.

'Natalie can give them an experience they may not get in the real clinical setting, because sometimes you'll go to a clinical and stay two days and never see a birth,' McBrayer said. 'This way we have the capability to show them what it's really going to be like, in a way that's more [engaging] than just watching a [birthing] video.'

Students who have begun their clinicals can be seen wearing Lee's official burgundy scrubs and navy jackets around campus as they go to and from on-campus labs and the women's health centers at SkyRidge and Erlanger East hospitals.

McBrayer said third-year students are set to begin assisting with live births at these locations in the next few weeks. This class will be the first to graduate from Lee's nursing program in 2017.

Groff said that being a part of Lee's newest program has been challenging but incredibly rewarding.

'It's becoming official,' Groff said. 'And even though its been a little bit harder to not have' as many students and faculty as other majors do, its been an adventure because we're the first ones to take classes and use the equipment, and have been here since the [start] of the program.'

Groff looks forward to the construction of the School of Nursing building, which is set to open in fall of 2016 according to the Office of Publications website.

'Lots of people know about the theology program, and lots of people know about the music program, but not many people know much about the nursing program yet,' Groff said. 'Its encouraging to have this kind of support, and know that people want to build us a building.'

McBrayer said she feels honored to work in a setting that teaches nursing from a Christ-centered perspective.

'The energy and excitement is awesome right now,' McBrayer said. 'We have such beautiful people in this program' they have drive and servants' hearts and I think that's awesome. They're not doing it for the paycheck' they're doing it because they want to help people. They want to do good, and they want to make a difference.'

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