Middlesex Veterinary Program Gets Boost With Simulated Canine

Scooby is a very good girl.

She’s fully grown at 35 to 40 pounds. She’s a patient, lovable mutt with a gentle disposition, and she’s settled in nicely since finding her new home late last year.

She doesn’t complain when you draw her blood. She doesn’t pull away if you insert an IV port. She never eats, she never sleeps. No matter how many times she’s intubated or stuck with a needle, Scooby still obediently waits for students to poke and prod as they learn to care for animals.

Scooby is a SynDaver — an ultra-realistic model of simulated muscle and organs that has become the best teaching tool in the veterinary technology program at Middlesex Community College in Middletown. Her name comes from the manufacturer, Tampa-based SynDaver Labs, which gives their canine models names rather than serial numbers.

Middlesex has one of just four associate’s degree programs in the country using the tool, which is typically found only at four-year veterinary medicine schools.

Scooby’s lack of fur and skin is striking at first, but she’s a specialized piece of equipment that allows students to practice over and over again the delicate techniques they’ll soon need to perform on people’s pets, farm animals, rescues and exotic species once they begin working in a veterinary setting.

“It mimics live tissue closer than anything else out there,” said Dr. Christopher Gargamelli, veterinary technology program coordinator at Middlesex and an emergency veterinarian at the Animal Emergency Hospital of Central Connecticut in Rocky Hill. “Once we feel the student is confident with the procedure, they go to a live animal and things are going to be a lot smoother for the student and the patient.”

Middlesex purchased the SynDaver last year and began using it in the fall 2017 semester. Funding came from the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, a federal program administered by states to develop career and technical training programs.

“We’re thrilled. It’s solved so many problems for us,” Gargamelli said. “It’s very hard to find an owner willing to let our students work with their animals. Our students are very good, but they’re still students and still learning.”

The veterinary technology program trains veterinary technicians, the animal medicine equivalent to a registered nurse.

Vet techs are the ones pet owners will spend the most time with, and the ones who perform the majority of the routine procedures and care at animal hospitals.

“The biggest benefit to having this is the degree of confidence they build, because they’ve got a lot more experience versus someone who hasn’t had as many opportunities to practice,” said Amy Lawton, the program’s veterinary technician instructor, who works at Pieper Memorial Veterinary Center. “We try to simulate as many real-life situations as possible so they have the muscle memory developed and the technique developed, so it’s just putting it into practice with a live animal.”

Middlesex has used other simulation tools in the past, but they couldn’t come close to the realism Scooby provides.

With the supervision of Lawton and Dr. Dan Niemczyk, also a veterinarian at Pieper, the students get as much training as possible in the lab before they work with animals.

The program provides an opportunity for students to work with animals and doctors at Pieper and at area farms. Both field training portions of the course work combine job shadowing and hands-on learning, the instructors said. They can pass on tips that only come from working with animals over many years.

Middlesex students also work in a partnership with Yale University where they care for rabbits and rats used in laboratory settings.

As one student on a recent day prepared to put an IV tube in Scooby’s left foreleg, Lawton reminded her to have a steady, firm grip on the dog. Scooby won’t yank her paw back, but at the vet, a dog might be fighting to get free.

“In a clinical setting, they’re going to be potentially pulling away from you,” Lawton told the student.

Scooby is connected to a pump that operates the vascular system and cycles blood through the animal. The pump is controlled with a tablet connected via Bluetooth that allows the instructors to adjust the blood pressure and heart rate on the fly, simulating a healthy animal or a sick one. Drawing blood from a dog whose blood pressure is dropping is a much different experience than doing the same with a healthy pooch in for a routine checkup, Gargamelli said.

“Each class we get two or three live animals to practice on, but the SynDaver is the first time we’ve tried any invasive procedures,” said Gabriella Amodei, 20, of Cheshire. “You get the feel of handling a syringe for the first time and taking blood. Getting to use the SynDaver is a first step so we kind of get comfortable with it. It’s a good piece of equipment before we see the live animals.”

Amodei said she has wanted to work with animals since she was young, and the veterinary technology program will allow her to work closely with pets and their humans.

“As a vet tech you do a lot more of the procedures [than the veterinarian] and you do have to communicate more with the owner and explain the procedures in simple terms,” Amodei said. “The vet tech has a lot of responsibility.”

The program at Middlesex is growing. It started about five years ago and now has a competitive admission process, a rarity for a community college.

Last year, 16 students graduated from the program, and 23 are on track this year. Gargamelli said 44 students applied for the program’s 24 slots this year, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the field is expected to grow 20 percent in the next decade, “much faster than the average for all occupations.”

Deborah Bendor enrolled in the vet tech program after working an unfulfilling job for years as an optician in Boston. She always dreamed of working with animals, and eventually wants to work for a rescue organization.

Working with the SynDaver is an opportunity to practice with professionals. Before a recent lab session with Scooby, she had done simple procedures and diagnosis work with dogs and cats, birds and lizards and the lab animals at Yale. Inserting a breathing tube and tapping a vein are a new level of complexity, she said.

“In a way, it’s a live creature, but I know I’m not going to hurt it,” Bendor said.

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