A newsmaker you should know: Wilfong's work is her passion

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Donamarie Wilfong paused before answering when asked what her hobbies are. Then she paused some more. And a bit more.

"Well, I don't really have any hobbies. My work is my hobby; it really is my passion," she said.

Ms. Wilfong is the new corporate vice president of interpersonal education for the Allegheny Health Network. But the title isn't important to Ms. Wilfong, who said it is her work that is important.

A nurse educator for more than 35 years, she is the co-director of STAR Center at the Allegheny Health Network, along with her husband, Donald Wilfong Jr.

Ms. Wilfong and her husband, a physician, were at a conference in New York visiting a center that offered simulations of medical situations and decided the educational practice would benefit health care providers and students in Western Pennsylvania.

When they returned to Pittsburgh, Ms. Wilfong started researching and writing grants to fund the endeavor. In 2006, she received a $500,000 grant from the Highmark Foundation and STAR, Stimulation, Teaching And Research Center, was created.

"It is a whole new way of learning, really hands on," she said.

At STAR, students, health care providers and educators use simulators to practice every aspect of health care imaginable, Ms. Wilfong said.

"It starts with the admissions process to post-discharge. We can simulate just about everything. We have manikins who can even deliver a baby," she said.

Ms. Wilfong, 59, said she had read about simulation learning, but like most health care providers and educators of a certain age, she had not experienced it herself.

"When we saw it, we knew we wanted to bring it here," she said.

Ms. Wilfong grew up in Johnstown and always wanted to be a nurse.

"My parents had never gone to college. My mother didn't even graduate from high school and she would sell shoes. When she would come home, she would be exhausted and I would rub her feet. She instilled in me how important it was to get an education," she said.

Ms. Wilfong worked in nursing in Philadelphia after she completed her bachelor's degree. It was there she met her husband. The two moved to Pittsburgh for Dr. Wilfong to do his residency with West Penn Hospital. Ms. Wilfong started teaching nursing at several local hospitals and colleges.

Dr. Wilfong serves as the medical director of STAR and as a physician with the Allegheny Health Network.

STAR is an "incredible" resource for the region, said Ms. Wilfong.

"In the beginning, it was just used for students and the nurses and physicians on staff, but soon other departments wanted to use it and then local colleges and universities," she said.

Students in several health care programs in the region can train on all aspects of health care at STAR. The simulators allow students and residents to practice delivering a baby, answer a code blue emergency or practice transporting an overweight patient out of tight quarters, explained Ms. Wilfong.

"You would not believe how real it is," she said.

Over the past seven years since its creation, more than 70,000 learners have gone through STAR. From that initial grant, they have gone on to win millions of dollars, expanding and updating the center almost continuously.

It was an idea whose time had come, Ms. Wilfong said.

"I always believed there was a better way for nurses -- and other health care providers -- to learn," she said.

Even her vacations are devoted to her career.

"We visit other simulation centers while we are on vacation. We really are dedicated," she said.

Kathleen Ganster, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.

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