Dr Arna van Engelen, a postdoc in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, recently volunteered at ‘Hands up for Health’, an interactive learning programme run by the Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust. In this article, she tells us about her experience.
The goal of ‘Hands up for Health’ is to help young people experience for themselves what it is like to work in healthcare. It is based in an amazing facility at St Thomas’ Hospital called the Simulation and Interactive Learning centre (SaIL), where visitors can take on the role of doctors treating manikins so lifelike that they speak and even breathe. The programme runs frequently and the staff are always in need of volunteers, so this seemed to me like a good chance to obtain some experience in teaching and interacting with school-age children.
The first time I volunteered I didn’t really know what to expect. After a general introduction to SaIL, I was excited to find my station and learn exactly what it was that I had to teach the children. I was put in charge of two separate practicals: first, a station with soap and a blacklight to demonstrate the importance of thoroughly washing your hands; and secondly, a transparent model of a body showing the lungs, along with equipment to do lung function testing. “Ok,” I thought. “I know a couple of things about this… Now to wait for the kids!”
As the first group came in – all children aged 9 or 10 – I had to catch their attention immediately. I told them as much as I could think of about germs, making sure to ask them questions to keep them engaged. Apparently my inexperience was showing, as one of the teachers started to add some new information, so I made sure to remember what she was saying for the next group! Still, it was great to see the kids get all excited as they started to play with the blacklight and tried to wash all the remaining soap off their hands. Turns out that it’s more difficult to wash one’s hands properly than you might expect!
Over at the lung station I spoke to the children about smoking, asthma and doing sports. It was fun to see them show a competitive side, as they all tried their very best at the lung function testing; and I was able to impress them all with my adult lung capacity.
Because the children were split into several groups, they kept rotating between the stations and I was able to improve my introduction and commentary every time. The kids certainly seemed to enjoy themselves, and I left feeling that everything had gone very well!
The second time I volunteered with a group of older children doing a summer programme. The session was therefore more advanced. In the morning I was running two practicals, co-teaching with an A&E doctor. The first part had us teaching students the steps you have to take when someone enters the emergency room. As a biomedical engineer, this was outside my experience, but luckily the ‘real’ doctor was around to take charge! In the second practical, students were able to take ‘blood’ samples from three lifelike false arms with ‘veins’ running through them. My experience as a blood donor came in handy here! It was great to see how proud the children felt when they successfully managed to take the blood, and I found myself thinking that teaching could be really quite fun.
The afternoon was a simulation of a boy being brought into a fully-equipped ER. The manikins used in the scenario are incredibly lifelike, moving and verbally responding to participants, so the whole experience felt very exciting and real. Again, I was glad of the presence of the A&E doctor, who lent some specific expertise. As assistant, my main task was to help the children do the work, guiding them in the right direction: “Wait, doctor, I think you need to check on him, because his blood pressure is dropping!… What just happened that could have changed his situation?” The whole process ran more smoothly with some groups than with others, but it was evident that all of the participants really enjoyed it.
I was very impressed with the SaIL facility during both of my experiences as a volunteer. The centre offers a unique experience and I am not at all surprised that the participants had such a good time. I also benefited a great deal: working on ‘Hands up for Health’ was a really good way to gain experience teaching young people, and I even gained some new knowledge for myself. As a non-medical doctor, I found it easier to manage the exhibits for the younger children; but with good guidance (and, probably, with practice) I’d recommend the simulations for the older kids to anybody else as well.