On the morning of Tuesday, April 21, a bus carrying State College Area High School students collided with a CATA bus near the intersection of Park Avenue and Porter Road. Dozens of passengers were injured, at least one fatally. Responders from local emergency management services were on the scene immediately to treat the wounded and transport them to Mount Nittany Medical Center.
Luckily, the scene described above did not happen in real life -- but it might have. Maureen Jones, a Penn State instructor in nursing, wants to prepare her students for that possibility.
To gain a firsthand look at an emergency scene, junior nursing students in Jones’ NURS 306 (Nursing Care of Children and Adolescents) class took part in a mock disaster drill that day at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park. Students from State College Area High School acted as bus accident victims for the nursing students to triage and treat.
“The purpose was to provide nursing students with an opportunity to enhance their nursing skills by participating in an interdisciplinary pre-hospital accident scene,” Jones said.
In January, Jones approached Maryanne Neal, a teacher in State High’s health professions program, about the possibility of collaborating on the project.
“Maureen had a vision of putting her nursing students through a live disaster drill,” Neal recalled. “We thought it would be a great experience for the State High students to be a part of something that we hope never happens, but is a real possibility in a town with large venues for sports and entertainment.”
About 50 student “victims” were given fake injuries (a process known as moulage) ranging from cuts and bruises to protruding shrapnel to bone fractures. Each mock victim wore a lanyard describing his or her age and injuries. The nursing students used this information to assess the patients' conditions, then decide how to react.
“Both the nursing and high school students learned about triage -- how health care providers prioritize care needs in an emergency situation, how they treat victims or transport them for advanced-level care,” Neal said.
Jones enlisted the help of several local community organizations to participate as emergency responders. The groups included Penn State Emergency Management, University Ambulance Service, Centre LifeLink, Centre Region EMS, Bellefonte EMS, Geisinger Life Flight, Mount Nittany Medical Center Emergency Department, Penn State Transportation Services, Centre Area Transportation Authority, and the Alpha and Pleasant Gap Fire Companies.
While the mock disaster was a learning experience for all students involved, the EMS professionals had to act the way they normally would during such an event.
“Act as real as you can while the patients enact their scenario,” Jones instructed a group of paramedics just before the drill took place. She added that although some of the students had taken courses in first aid and trauma nursing, “you should assume they don’t have that knowledge and they will need you to show them what to do.”
Students like Kayla Wright, a junior nursing major from Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, hoped the event would help them decide whether they actually wanted to work in emergency medicine after graduation.
“I’ve been a member of the volunteer fire company since high school, and I’m taking an EMT course there over the summer,” Wright said. “This should give me a better idea of what I would have to do if this happens for real.”
But the nursing students took on a teaching role as well. Jones envisioned that they would act as mentors for the high school students, many of whom expressed an interest in pursuing health-related careers.
“I want to see how a hospital functions and how an emergency room handles this kind of situation,” said Ally Wagner, a senior State High student who hopes to attend medical school. Wagner, like many of the other participating State High students, is enrolled in the anatomy and physiology course through the health professions program.
Following the triage exercise, nursing students accompanied their patients to the hospital in ambulances. One student, in critical condition with a femur fracture, had to be transported by Life Flight helicopter. At the hospital emergency room, the student nurses had the opportunity to observe another level of triage.
After the drill, Shawn Kauffman, head of Centre Region EMS, led the participants in a debriefing to bring the exercise full circle and provide students with the most realistic experience possible for a mass casualty situation.
Will Watson, a junior nursing major from Whitehall, Pennsylvania, hoped the drill would help him decide whether he wanted to become a flight nurse.
“Based on my experience as part of the mock disaster, I can see myself being a part of an emergency team,” Watson concluded.
Whether or not they actually enter a health-related profession, everyone benefits from the kind of knowledge such an exercise provides, said Neal, adding with a laugh that the State High students were already asking if they could do it again next year.
“The more real-world experience students can have, the better prepared they will be in the event they ever have to be part of something like this,” she said.