STAR Center gives a hands-on experience

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At the STAR Center at West Penn Hospital in Bloomfield, aspiring health care professionals can do everything they might do in a conventional hospital wing -- except kill the patient.

STAR is an acronym for Simulation, Teaching and Academic Research. It replicates an actual clinical hospital unit where students get hands-on experience in dealing with patients and in responding to emergencies. The only real difference is the patients at the STAR Center are computerized robotic mannequins.

These are no ordinary mannequins. They mimic the physiology of human patients and can be programmed to display a wide range of health conditions. The latest SimMan 3G can cry, bleed, convulse and suffer cardiac arrest. SimMan is so realistic that a student had to be consoled after accidentally "killing" him.

In addition to four nursing bays, the STAR Center has a family birthing/neonatal center, two intensive care units, and a fully equipped ambulance. There is also a mobile STAR van that goes to high school job fairs and to other West Penn facilities.

The STAR Center was established in 2007, thanks to a $500,000 grant from the Highmark Foundation. Subsequent grants have made the facility worth about $2 million, said Donamarie Wilfong, who has a doctorate in nursing and is the director of clinical education.

The most recent grant, of $106,850 from Highmark last month, will fund a two-year partnership between the STAR Center and Chatham University's Doctor of Physical Therapy and Master Physician Assistant Studies programs.

The STAR Center offers 70 different courses, and is being urged to create more.

"Each week we get several requests for more classes," Ms. Wilfong said.

"We train all health care professionals -- cleaning staff, nurses, residents, medical students, practicing physicians," she said. But the STAR Center is used most by nursing students.

"The whole purpose is to make sure that when they get to the hospital, they don't make any mistakes," Ms. Wilfong said.

Before a student can go to the real hospital, he or she must pass a simulation test at the STAR Center.

Although the start-up costs were large, STAR soon will be saving the West Penn Allegheny family of hospitals money, Ms. Wilfong said.

"STAR makes it possible to orient new nurses to the hospital without taking so much time of skilled nurses to show them around."

And because the new nurses will be more skilled when they get to the hospital, they'll make fewer errors, she said.

"Simulation training has been shown to shorten the length of caregivers' learning curves, thus reducing the institution's costs on errors and mistakes," agreed Patricia Downey, director of Chatham's physical therapy doctorate program at Chatham University.

"It's not all about book reading," Ms. Wilfong said. "It's applying knowledge."

It was the experiences she and her husband had in helping their dyslexic son learn that gave her the idea for the STAR Center, Ms. Wilfong said.

"We taught him through simulation," she recalled. "He couldn't understand 'Charlotte's Web.' So we acted it out."

Her son, Ms. Wilfong noted with pride, is now a college student and is getting good grades.

Brazil Scott, 17, is a student in the Health Careers Academy at Peabody High School in East Liberty. The STAR Center is very realistic, she said.

"You'd never think that something plastic could have so many human characteristics," she said.

One of Ms. Scott's instructors at Peabody is Robin Campbell, a registered nurse.

"I am really thankful that we have an opportunity to come here," Ms. Campbell said. "It really allows the students to make that connection between theory and skill. Students can feel what it's like to deal with a real human being, but without the danger."

The youngest users of the STAR Center are the elementary school students enrolled in the Youth Mentorship Program of the Gateway Medical Society. The purpose of the program is to encourage promising African-American boys to pursue careers in medicine.

"A survey indicated people knew they wanted to be physicians by the sixth or seventh grades," said Morris Turner, youth coordinator.

The program, funded by a grant from the Heinz Foundation, began last March. Mr. Turner selected 15 sixth-graders from Pittsburgh public schools to participate.

"I interviewed 60 or 70 kids," Mr. Turner said. "What we are looking for are kids who excel in mathematics and have a genuine interest in science."

Those in the initial class who wish to can be in the program through high school. Each year another 15 sixth-graders will be selected.

The highlight of the program for most of the youngsters, Mr. Turner said, is a weekly visit to the STAR Center.

"The experience they receive at the STAR Center has truly been priceless," he said.

The staff members at the STAR Center are happy to have them.

"These kids are wonderful," Ms. Wilfong said. "They show up in shirts and ties. They are so respectful."

Jack Kelly: or 412-263-1476.


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