CMC Steamboat opens nursing simulation lab; first of three labs planned on West Slope

Vernon Watkins, a high fidelity manikin, is set up to mimic a patient after abdominal surgery at Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs' new nursing simulation lab. (Photo by Dylan Anderson)

Vernon Watkins wasn’t doing so well, evident by the hospital bed he was in. He has a line of stitches in his abdomen from surgery, and when nurse Mikaelyn Sullivan checks them, he can’t help but cry out in pain.

“I know it is tender; we will get you some pain medicine,” Sullivan says.

Watkins has a ball cap and glasses on, his chest rises and falls as he breathes and his eyelids flutter as if he may dose off at any moment. Sullivan checks his vital signs on a monitor near the bed, notes oxygen flowing from a port in the wall and adjusts Watkins’ bandage.

While Sullivan, a nursing professor, has his recovery on track, Watkins won’t be leaving the recreated hospital suite at Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs Campus anytime soon. Rather than a patient, Watkins is the teaching tool at the heart of three planned nursing simulation labs, the first of which opened last week in Steamboat.

The state-of-the-art lab on the Steamboat campus is built out like to look like several rooms in a hospital nursing suite, with high-tech patients that have vital signs, can tell students where their pain is and can be programmed for various medical scenarios.

“It allows the opportunities in our rural community,” professor Courtney Smazikski said. “We sometimes have more limited experiences for students here just because we don’t see as much.”

Nursing Professor Courtney Smazinski shows off a pregnant mother and baby manikin at Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs' new nursing simulation lab. (Photo by Dylan Anderson)

Nursing students are allowed to complete as much as half of their clinical hours in a simulation lab like the one now open in Steamboat, which can be crucial in mountain towns as clinical hours in smaller hospitals can be limited.

Foundation CEO Kristin Heath Colon said students were often having to travel on their own dime to get clinical hours complete, and having a lab on site should help ease that burden. They hope they can offer a wider variety of clinicals, as well.

“It’s not only the distance they have to travel, but not all of those opportunities are available because there is a limited number of rotations,” she said.

About two years ago, the college tried to approach how it trained nurses differently, as CMC President Carrie Hauser said they tried to keep up with the demand for nurses in rural areas.

“Certainly, we want our nurses working on real people,” Hauser said at an opening ceremony for the lab on Thursday. “It is remarkable how real to life these manikins are, and the experience that our students will receive.”

Steamboat is just the first to get up and running, with similar simulation labs planned at campuses in Breckenridge and Spring Valley at Glenwood Springs, as well.

The labs are being funded by the Colorado Mountain College Foundation’s Campaign for Rural Nursing Success, which aims to raise $5 million for the labs and nursing scholarships. The foundation has received gifts from the Craig-Scheckman Family Foundation and Johnson & Johnson Foundation.

“We purchase medical supplies just like a medical unit would,” said Amy Stern, regional development officer for the CMC Foundation. “There is a price tag to funding a facility like this, but it is an amazing learning experience for the students because they are able to complete up to 50% of their clinical hours.”

The lab in Steamboat used to be the Yampa Valley Entrepreneurship Center, which has now moved to a building near the Steamboat Springs Airport occupied by Honey Stinger at no charge to the college. The roughly $1.8 million renovation started while students were largely away from the building because of the pandemic.

The space is laid out like a hospital wing, with call lights over doors, nursing stations, crash carts and six different hospital beds. One of the rooms is set up for a labor and delivery scenario, with a mother and baby manikin.

All the data from simulations are saved, including video from several different angles, which allow students and faculty to go over the simulation and talk about what went well and what they can build on. Currently, there is just one high-fidelity manikin at Steamboat, but there are plans to add more.

The labs in Steamboat and Glenwood are state-approved Enterprise Zone projects, which allows donors to potentially receive a 25% tax credit. When fully built out, the college hopes to have 24 nursing students at each campus.

“We’re able to do that, because we have this high fidelity simulation center,” said Elizabeth Poulos, dean of nursing, health sciences, public safety, wellness and outdoor studies. “This is helping us reach out to the community and get nurses to out mountain communities and serve the folks there.”

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