Mick strokes up the ailments for education

Meet the man who’s had a hundred heart attacks. Give or take. Not to mention countless cancers, hypertension, emphysema, diabetes… the list goes on. In fact, Mick Cumming jotted them all down in time to share his story.

“I had fun going through my notes today,” he says. “I’ve had colon cancer, lung cancer, strokes. Plenty of strokes. I’ve had it all. It’s been fun.” Not that Mick’s making light of illness and trauma, far from it. As one of 40 sim patients enlisted by the Bendigo Campus, Mick is serious in his aim to help prepare La Trobe Rural Health School students for a career at the coalface.

Sim patients take part in simulated scenarios, from road traumas to medical appointments and everything in between. The role requires a good dose of acting, a strong stomach, excellent communication skills, and the ability to interact with people of all ages, backgrounds and nationalities. “I love it,” Mick says.

Mick started standing in for seriously ill people five years ago, after he saw a notice at his local bowls club for an information session about becoming a sim patient on campus.

“It was something different,” he says. “I like to help out. I take my hat off to anyone studying and learning. Good on them I reckon.”

Mick spent 24 years working for the Commonwealth Bank, before running a coffee shop in Elmore with his wife for five years, “working seven days a week.” He then worked in drought relief at Rural Finance and at the AAPT call centre in Bendigo before semi retiring to take up travel.

As such, Mick says he hadn’t been anywhere near a university before pursuing his current role. “I didn’t know so much was offered here, such as speech pathology and occupational therapy.” Mick works with these courses, plus physiotherapy, paramedicine and nursing.

“The best job I’ve done was a stroke scenario. It involved having a stroke here on campus and the paramedic students came, assessed me and put me on a trolley then handed me over to the triage nursing students. Then I saw the physios, then the occupational therapists, all over a couple of weeks.

“Earlier this year I had a stroke in bed while I was being watched by nurses who were going through re-training in stroke assessment.”

So, how does someone prepare to actively have a simulated stroke? “I do a lot of research,” Mick says. “Google is my best friend. Youtube is my best friend. I read a lot and study a lot and practice at home.”

And then there’s the annual trauma simulation staged for paramedicine students. “That’s my best fun,” Mick says. “A couple of years ago I was sitting in the driver’s seat of a car, with blood all over my face. They had to actually cut the roof off the car and drag me out through the back on a stretcher. That was a great day. But it can also be really shocking.

“One of the most difficult ones I did was a death scenario for nurses. I was the relative next to my parent in the bed, who was going through the process of passing away. There was a machine that made the noises a person actually makes. It was really confronting for the students. A sad situation but a good situation. All these things, they have to deal with.”

An important part of any simulation is the debrief afterwards. Sim patients also take part in these, offering constructive feedback from a patients’ perspective. “After every scenario I use the word ‘communication’,” he says. “The ability to communicate with a patient, to listen and speak and really hear them is so important.”

A vital part of learning and teaching

Physiotherapy lecturer Rachael McAleer says sim patients play a vital role for her students. “We couldn’t do without them,” she says.

“Sim patients provide our students with vital hands on practice with a ‘real’ patient case scenario, instead of practicing on each other. We utilise them in subjects prior to students having been on any clinical placements, so it is their first experience with a ‘patient.’

Rachael says people like Mick provide students with first real critiques and feedback from someone other than a peer or lecturer. “They get to practice their practical skills and knowledge, but most importantly they practice their communication skills – speaking to strangers, being comfortable with small talk, making a person feel important and heard, listening skills, empathy.”

She says a good sim patient is someone who is happy to learn and to take advice, has a good sense of humour, is empathetic to the patient role and the nervous student, can give honest yet constructive feedback to the students and think on their feet if the unexpected happens, as it usually does!

“The most memorable scenarios are when the students think that they are 100 per cent prepared for the simulation and then I throw in a curve ball. For example, they go out of the room to set up a test and when they return the sim patient has dropped their drink on the floor, slipped over and become tangled in the bedside controls. Or midway through an important assessment the sim patient asks to go to the toilet, so the students have to take them and ensure that they are safe. The crying and overly-emotional patient is always memorable – seeing the soft empathetic side of the students is fabulous to watch and see develop over time.”

While many health courses utilise sim patients, La Trobe has also incorporated a Near Peer Tutor program for fourth-year physio students. “These students are trained to act as educators and provide feedback and monitor simulations alongside the lecturer and sim patients,” Rachael says.

“They work closely with the sim patients to ensure the third-year learner student receives ongoing support and feedback throughout a simulation class. It has been a wonderful initiative and very rewarding for the near peer, student learners and the staff.”

Rachael says the sim patients in Bendigo are highly valued for their contribution. “We have a fantastic group of sim patients here at Bendigo. They get to know the lecturers very well which is extremely helpful as we work together very closely.”

For Mick, the role also makes an interesting talking point. “People can’t believe it,” he says. “When I post on Facebook that I’ve just had another heart attack people say, that’s unbelievable! When are you having your next one?”

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