7/3/2007 12:00 AM
Medical students have been using humanlike simulators at Loma Linda University to practice treating everything from breathing problems to heart attacks.
The simulators, which cost $9,000 to $40,000 apiece, come equipped with artificial lungs, hearts, a pulse and can be pumped full of fluid in order to bleed like a real patient.
A team of instructors from Texas A&M University wheeled in the newest, most sophisticated simulator yet -- they call him Charlie -- to train 24 Inland-area first responders last week on how to deal with weapons of mass destruction.
"When I leave here, six months from now they will not remember my name," said training coordinator William Arnold, "But they will never forget Charlie."
With a price tag of $250,000, Charlie is hooked up to a computer that tells him to dilate his pupils, react to a variety of medications, bleed from his ears if necessary and spike or lower his blood pressure and heart rate to react to a variety of medications.
He even has a speaker that gives him a voice -- Arnold's voice, spoken through a remote microphone.
Leslie Parham, a 33-year-old nurse educator for the San Bernardino County Fire Department, was surprised.
"The other mannequins we work with don't respond to you," she said. "You wind up verbalizing a lot of what you are doing rather than doing it hands on. With Charlie, you talk to your patient. You don't have to ask somebody what you're feeling and hearing. You can actually feel it and hear it."
The three-day class, paid for with a $45,000 grant from the federal Homeland Security Department, taught police, firefighters, paramedics and emergency-room workers how to cope with some of the nastiest weapons out there.
"We're talking about chemical, biological and nuclear explosives," Arnold said. "We are talking about dirty bombs and things of that nature, which are not necessarily as powerful as a nuclear explosion.
"We use an all-hazard approach," he said. "People are looking for the bomb to come out of the air or somebody to walk in with a suicide bomb. That is not necessarily going to happen. We can encounter things that are made for use in ordinary life and have been turned into a weapon.
"A fuel truck, for instance, is nothing but an explosive. Misused, a fuel truck can become a bomb. Look at the Oklahoma City bombing."
Nerve agents can be found in household chemicals, Arnold says.
"Kids are making pipe bombs from instructions on the Internet," he said.
Leigh Overton, 43, a paramedic supervisor for the San Bernardino County Fire Department who lives in Big Bear Lake, said she appreciates the threat.
"In San Bernardino, we have many dangers on a day-to-day basis that you don't usually see," she said. "We have the railroad that goes through San Bernardino County and carries all sorts of hazardous materials. It carries all sorts of things that are combustible, like explosives. We're more likely in this area to see something like that, where we have a large explosion and we need to evacuate people."
Parham, who lives in Yucaipa, said the training "makes you aware of your surroundings. It makes you aware that it's not just terrorism on a national level. There are things right here in our backyard that are occurring that can affect our lives every day that we can prepare for.
"We're not just preparing for a national disaster," she said. "On a local level, we deal with meth labs."
The students learned to assemble a decontamination tent in minutes and worked in four-member teams in the university's simulation laboratory to treat Charlie for everything from breathing problems to radiation poisoning.
One of the most important lessons he teaches, Arnold said, is for the first responders to first look out for themselves.
"You've heard of law-enforcement people and firefighters getting killed," he said. "You've heard of medical people being killed on the scene. Our first thought has always been to provide care to the injured.
"Now we are trying to say, 'If you rush in, you put yourself at risk.' If we lose one resource, now we are unable to give the same standard of care that we've always given. We want to protect the resource, then protect the patients."
Routine Cause of Death
And in the laboratory, where Charlie was helping teach students how to deal with toxic chemicals and radiation burns, the instructors tossed in a few ordinary problems.
In one instance, as first responders searched desperately for exotic problems, Charlie "died" because they missed a routine problem: asthma.
"We teach them weapons of mass destruction, weapons of mass destruction, weapons of mass destruction," Arnold said, "but we don't want them going back out into the world thinking everything is a weapon of mass destruction.
"We throw them a curse so they'll think back inside the box," he said.
Pablo Lema, a 20-year-old respiratory-care practitioner from Redlands, was one of the students.
"We didn't catch onto the simple things," he said. "It was actually something with his medical history. We learned to look at the whole picture; not just one thing."
He thought the lesson went pretty well. Until Charlie died.
"Sometimes they die," he said.