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Newly expanded simulation lab helps train nursing students

Joanna Popovits’ journey to becoming a nurse began with her grandmother, Teresita Alicia Pineiro. Growing up, Teresita’s drive and determination to help others served as inspiration for Joanna, who inherited her grandmother’s work ethic and giving heart. But as Teresita’s health declined, Joanna noticed she had trouble at the doctor’s office.

“My grandmother is so full of life, but medical appointments can be challenging for her because she doesn’t speak much English,” Joanna says. “In translating for her, I realized the kind of impact I could have in helping people navigate health care.”

This desire to help others led Joanna to pursue a nursing degree at Cizik School of Nursing at UTHealth, where the newly renovated Simulation and Clinical Performance Laboratory (Sim Lab) helped her develop important clinical skills by working through real patient scenarios on lifelike manikins.

“I was a little nervous when I began working in the Sim Lab,” says Joanna, now a senior nursing student. “But after learning more and becoming confident in my skills, I can go through the simulation to ensure the best possible outcome for the patient.”

In the newly renovated 27,000-square-foot Sim Lab, newer students can practice basic skills like administering medications and taking vital signs, while advanced students are able to hone more specialized techniques. Because students practice on manikins, they can perfect their clinical skills before working with patients. 

“We work through real-life patient scenarios, which requires teamwork and thinking outside the box,” Joanna says. “I like that because it is what nurses do every day in hospitals and clinical settings.”

Although the COVID-19 pandemic closed many clinic doors, Joanna and her peers were able to substitute simulation experiences for up to half of their traditional clinical hour requirements. Joanna has already taken advantage of Sim Lab opportunities to brush up on her clinical skills during the pandemic.

“I am so grateful for the faculty and staff at the Sim Lab,” she says. “They have offered extraordinary support during COVID-19 and really helped me prepare for my clinical rotations.”

After losing her father unexpectedly in a car accident in 2019, Joanna struggled in one of her classes. Finding inspiration in her grandmother’s strength, Joanna has persevered and will soon graduate from nursing school. In the end, she believes her heartbreak will make her a stronger nurse.

“I take my father’s memory with me every day as a reminder of what my patients and their families might be going through,” Joanna says. “Keeping him close helps me give patients the best
possible care no matter the circumstances.”

As she looks to her final semester of nursing school, Joanna says she is ready to take on her first job after she graduates. And she believes that Sim Lab and clinical opportunities have helped prepare her for whatever the future brings.

“Every time I walk into the lab, it’s like I’m walking into the hospital to care for real patients,” she says. “I become the professional nurse I was meant to be.” 

From landing on the moon to the rise of personal computers, older adults have witnessed profound technological advancements during their lifetimes. In recent years, these advancements have taken the form of smart devices, many of which can help aging adults stay at home longer. But how do you determine what technology is dependable and easy to use?

To help seniors navigate this wave of age-friendly products, the Smart Apartment at Cizik School of Nursing serves as a living laboratory to pilot test services and devices. The one-bedroom apartment contains all the usual amenities of a home—from a fully furnished living space to a full kitchen and bathroom.

“Many older adults want to remain in their homes rather than transition to an assisted living facility,” says Constance M. Johnson, PhD, RN. “We created a space to determine what technology is useful and can help people stay at home for as long as possible.”

In early 2020, Johnson awarded the first three Internet of Things and Aging in Place Seed Grants using funds from her endowed appointment as the Maria C. and Christopher J. Pappas Family Distinguished Chair in Nursing and the Rice ENRICH program. In partnership with Rice University, these grants support interdisciplinary teams from both institutions to test ideas in the Smart Apartment.

Each project focuses on a different technology, including products designed to improve the independence of older adults suffering from common age-related conditions. From motion detectors to identify distress in stroke survivors, to assistive devices that help dementia patients, to voice-activated artificial intelligence that can answer medication questions, each study will gather important pilot data that will spur advancements in technology to help older adults age in place.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for technological support and monitoring for older adults,” Johnson says. “Thanks to the generosity of the Pappas family, we are able to work toward helping them thrive at home for years to come.”

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Joanna Popvits
Joanna Popvits