Students currently enrolled in Norwalk Community College's nursing and allied health programs are going to be even better prepared to hit the ground running in careers at local hospitals than their predecessors, thanks to a new hospital simulation unit in the $38 million Center for Science, Health and Wellness, which opened on the West Campus Aug. 31.

NCC worked with Greenwich, Stamford and Norwalk hospitals to set up hospital rooms-- a total of six--that mimic what the students would see in each particular hospital, right down to the layout and type of equipment.

During a tour of the new 55,000-square-foot center last Thursday afternoon, nursing professor Kathy Hayes said, "They are so much more prepared when they actually hit the floor and there is real person speaking to them from the bed because they have already been in that exact situation with the exact same equipment here. They make all their mistakes here. It's a great situation.

"We teach the principles always. What you are doing is going to be the same no matter where you are, but because of the way certain hospitals adapt certain things you have to learn the idiosyncrasies that go along with the equipment."

For example, representatives from each hospital discussed the type of intravenous pumps, wall consoles, blood pressure cuffs and feeding tubes. they use with the Center's architects so they could be installed in the simulation unit at the Center.

Hayes pointed out another benefit to the simulation unit--it's a lot more spacious than what the college had at its disposal in the past.

"There is no comparison. We have 50 students in first semester classes. If we were in the old space, we would have had these 50 students in two rooms all trying to see, all trying to do, all trying to practice, and they just didn't get the full benefit of being able to spread out."

Other impressive features of the simulation unit are patient mannequins called Sim-Men. Two of the mannequins can be programmed to display realistic symptoms. Costing up to $100,000 each, they can breathe, cough and be used to teach students a variety of care scenarios. They have heartbeats, make lung and abdominal sounds, and can even perspire and turn blue. Interchangeable parts are added to simulate burns and wounds.

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"The faculty or lab staff creates patient care scenarios that we want the mannequins to perform," said Mary Ann Kessler, Nursing Department chair.

"The advantage of using simulation in nursing education is that students can practice, make mistakes or do things extremely well in a controlled setting."

The simulation unit also uses a computerized electronic medical records system, the latest in patient file management.

All the rooms are connected with technology so professors have the ability to film procedures, exercises or simulations. They can streamline them to another lab or a computer room so that other students can watch fellow students as they are put through situations. Or professors can tape a scenario and use it later for teaching.

The Center also features a wellness center; microbiology, physics and anatomy and physiology laboratories and an Exercise Science Laboratory.

The science labs are larger than before and include more space for storage and preparation. The Exercise Science Laboratory houses the most advanced equipment available, including a metabolic cart-- an electronic tool used to measure the body's metabolism through the amount of heat produced when the body is at rest. The result can help gauge a person's overall health and prescribe exercise or weight management regiments.

NCC educates more of the nurses, respiratory therapists, medical assistants and certified nurse aides than any other institution in Fairfield County.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2018 job openings for registered nurses are expected to grow by 22 percent; for respiratory therapists by 21 percent; and for medical assistants by 34 percent. The demand for physical therapist assistants will grow by 33 percent, keeping pace with the large number of baby boomers entering retirement.

During the tour, a group of students studying to become medical assistants were in the process of learning the proper way to scrub their hands.

"To wash your hands successfully, you sing happy birthday to yourself two times," instructor Pat Lesiw told the students."

Down the hall from their classroom is a Tutoring and Counseling Center.

"Students can come in and study. Counselors are available to help them. We can host small workshops to discuss topics like medications or give debriefings on simulations," said Mary Schuler, director of NCC Nursing and Allied Health Division.

"We are very excited about this. We have found that students who come in here to study and get counseling, their grades tend to increase almost two letter grades."

The center was funded in part byt the Connecticut Department of Public Works. The NCC Foundation raised $2.38 million for construction costs and $7.5 million for equipment.