Learning by Doing

New animal simulation laboratory will help students learn basic surgery and other clinical skills

illustration of animal simulation lab

Hannah Donnelly, V17, was “super anxious” about a dog spay she was scheduled to do. All third-year students at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine are required to spay two dogs for their course in small-animal anesthesia and surgery.

So when she got an email offering students a chance to practice on a simulator as part of a pilot study, she promptly signed up. “Basically, surgery is a series of steps you have to learn by doing,” she said. On her simulated surgery day, she practiced in real-world conditions. She scrubbed in, picked up her scalpel, made the tiny incision in a model dog and cut through layers of “skin.” She placed her sutures and extracted the replica ovaries. And when it was over, those precise surgical steps felt coded into her muscle memory, she said.

When the time came for the real thing—a dachshund from a local shelter—she felt totally prepared.

“Practice makes perfect,” Donnelly said, noting that working on the simulator gave her dexterity and self-assurance. “You need to be confident as a veterinarian,” she said, “and anything you can do to build up confidence is a good thing.”

The school’s new Multipurpose Teaching and Simulation Laboratory will do just that. It will house a variety of life-sized simulation animal models on which students will practice their clinical and surgical skills. The centerpiece will be a surgical training lab. The facility is in the design stage, and money is being raised to build it.

Cummings School is part of a national movement at veterinary schools to expand simulation training, much like medical and dental schools have already done, said Nick Frank, professor and chair of clinical sciences, who is leading the working group that the school’s dean, Deborah Kochevar, has charged with reimagining 3,000 square feet of space in the Henry and Lois Foster Hospital for Small Animals for the simulation lab.

“Students need opportunities to practice basic procedural techniques without the inhibitions or anxiety that can come from working on live animals,” Frank said. “We want all of our students to be competent by the time they graduate, but we also know that students pick up skills at different rates. With a lab like this, students can practice at their own speed.”

Students will also be able to check out models of small animals, much as they would at a lending library, to practice in the lab or at home. These cat and dog simulators will enable students to practice such fundamentals as abdominal palpation, CPR, dentistry and intravenous catheter placement.

The simulation lab will build on the talents of faculty and staff who have created many homegrown small-animal models over the years. For example, Michael Stone, an internal medicine specialist at Cummings School, worked with bioengineering students at Worcester Polytechnic Institute to develop six different canine abdomen palpation models that students use to differentiate between a full bladder and a tumor, among other medical conditions.

This kind of educational ingenuity, Frank said, has the potential to flourish even more. “We could replicate prototypes and replace older models as needed. We have a lot of good ideas, and I am hopeful that the lab will get the creative juices flowing.”

The lab will accommodate four large-animal simulator stations to teach procedures such as rectal palpation in cows and horses and intravenous catheter placement. Large-animal models are costly, so Frank is extremely grateful that a client of the Hospital for Large Animals at Tufts has made a generous gift to purchase an equine simulator for the new lab.

Alison Walck, who raises Lusitano horses on her farm in Connecticut, made the gift to honor the memory of her filly Inspiradora, who died from a rare heart defect when she was just six days old.

Inspiradora, which is Portuguese for “one who inspires,” will live up to her name through this gift, Walck said. While the simulation model will not be finished and delivered to Tufts until later in 2017, the filly’s name has already been engraved on the halter the simulation horse will wear. “This is Inspiradora’s legacy,” she said.

The new equine simulator, which is technologically more sophisticated than an existing horse simulator that students have named Eddie, will feature an inflatable gastrointestinal tract to familiarize students with colic, a severe abdominal condition that can be lethal, as well as a replica spleen, left kidney, pelvis, inflatable rectum and palpable uterus.

The gift is a pragmatic one, and it makes sense, Walck said. A simulation lab offers a kind of reset button that with each practice builds students’ confidence and competence—”the foundation of veterinary training,” she said. “It will offer such an incredible opportunity for students to have experience with the real work that is done in the field. These are tomorrow’s vets. Why not make them the best they can be?”

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.

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