Mobile lab a classroom for health-care pros

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Bruce Curnuck, an operating room nurse at Providence St. Mary Medical Center, chats during a break in a training session put on to help familiarize local health-care professionals with the details of spinal surgeries.

One could be excused for secretly thinking about horror movies. Science fiction, at the least.

A futuristic-looking room -- bright white and stainless steel under glowing lights -- filled with gloved people in yellow gowns? Holding scalpels, surgical hammers and laughing?

Yeah. Like a bad dream after a dinner of spicy food ... this felt like that.

In reality, I was in a classroom-lab-autopsy room on wheels, temporarily parked at Providence St. Mary Medical Center and taking up about 30 parking spaces.

It's called a satellite training center and consists of two massive trucks backed end to end with each other, a covered reception area and groovy ice-and-drink coolers, constantly refreshed.

Can I just say something? It's hard to watch hospital people guzzle soda, knowing the health-care industry's stand on that and all. I was there for bigger issues, however.

Like Cadaver 101, for example.

The whole setup was in Walla Walla courtesy of Medtronic, a medical technology company so vast, it has more arms than a family of octopi. It sells technology, equipment, training and personal services to hospitals all over the world.

It was St. Mary employee Bruce Curnuck's idea to ask the company, which serves St. Mary most in the operating room, to provide some staff training for spinal procedures. When Dr. David Yam and Dr. Nicolas Arredondo arrived to practice spine medicine in Walla Walla, they brought the latest and greatest in knowledge, Curnuck explained. "Everything went to a whole new level. It was a steep learning curve to jump to cutting edge technology."

Curnuck, an operating room nurse, asked Medtronic rep Conor Jordan what the company do for continuing education for spine medicine staff. "They said, 'We have the truck,'" the nurse recalled.

"The truck" and its staff is on the road nearly constantly, bringing the portable training center to all kinds of health-care professionals, said mobile medical education pro Daniel Lawrence, who's been at this gig for more than six years at 40 weeks a year.

"This is set up to bring in hospital and surgery staff to let them get hands-on opportunities they not get in an (operating room) setting. They get intimate with the instruments and every position can see the whole application of every instrument."

When everyone -- from the surgeon to the radiologist to the person cleaning the instruments -- knows how the technology works, it's surprising how cohesive surgical teams become, said Taurus Rogers, another Medtronic educator. "If they have a better understanding, it gets patients out of anesthesia that much faster and safer."

Medtronic accomplishes this in a number of ways, including hands-on labs and lectures from local specialists.

On this day, in "the truck," about 20 health professionals and I were vying for room in order to listen to Yam and Arredondo explain the evolution of spinal surgery. From a hole the size of a dinner plate cut into the front of a patient to reach the spine to today's teensy -- by comparison -- incisions done much closer to the problem spot is known as minimally invasive spine surgery.

To demonstrate modern technique, we had the guest star on the table. The cadaver, wrapped in plastic and draped in blue, was barely recognizable as human. Yet I couldn't keep from trying to get a sense of who this once was by the glimpses of mottled skin under the wrappings.

One by one, nurses, doctors and others -- all wearing 15-pound lead aprons that hugged like a python -- took turns at looking at abdominal muscles, courtesy of the cadaver.

Arredondo talked about situations than can arise during spine surgery. "When you find a vein full of blood, that's a bad situation. That's when you call for your brown pants."

Cue the laughter.

Soon a dilator has been inserted into the body, prepared for a tube that would allow access for tools, scopes and cameras.

The group would continue poking, scoping, looking and manipulating human innards for another hour or so. X-rays would show the position of scopes and scrapers. A surgical hammer would be employed.

When offered my own chance to peer down into a human body, maybe feel around for a muscle or spinal disc, my lead apron suddenly gained 100 pounds and I felt sweat bead on my face, as the group turned to watch my reaction.

I declined the offer -- too bad for me, but there you have it. It's best that I am a writer and not slicing anyone open.

The Medtronic experience was "very good," Curnuck said this week. "A lot of people have commented it clarified and solidified in their minds what Yam and Arredondo are doing."

More than enhancing a general perspective, the hands-on labs gave professionals insight into specific surgeries, he added. "We made a giant leap in the understanding of minimally invasive spine surgery."

The "truck" experience allowed a much broader population of health-care workers to gain a better idea of what goes on under a surgeon's hand, the nurse explained -- "A lot of peripheral departments that we couldn't do what we do here without them."

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

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