Spring 2017

Learning by Doing

New animal simulation laboratory will help train students in basic surgery and other foundational clinical skills. 

By Laura Ferguson

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Illustration: Natalya Zahn

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 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.

Students will also be able to check out models of small animals, much as they would at a lending library, to practice such fundamentals as abdominal palpation, CPR, dentistry and intravenous catheter placement.

The lab will accommodate four large-animal simulator stations. These 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 6 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 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 veterinarians. Why not make them the best they can be?”

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