Getting Under the Skin with Nurse Anesthesia Students

Nurse Anesthesia Anatomy Lab

James (Logan) McIntosh and Daniel Gideon, students in the School of Nurse Anesthesia’s DNP-A post-baccalaureate program, practice using sonography equipment at the UNTHSC Anatomy Lab April 25, 2017. Practical experience in the Anatomy lab provides irreplaceable learning opportunities that cannot be replicated in textbooks or simulations.

As a part of their curriculum working toward the Doctor of Nursing Practice in Anesthesia degree, some of Harris College’s students are undergoing a unique educational opportunity.

Students visit the UNT Health Science Center Anatomy Lab several times throughout their first didactic year, with each visit reinforcing what they’ve learned in the classroom. Because nurse anesthetists must perform everything from general anesthesia to precise nerve blocks, expert knowledge of human anatomy is vital.

The lab offers students the opportunity to take their understanding of anatomy and pathophysiology to a higher level, thanks to up-close, hands-on experiences with cadavers.

“In the past, anatomy has traditionally been taught through illustrations,” said Dr. Vaughna Galvin, assistant professor of professional practice. “I’ll give them instruction in the classroom and, when they go into the lab, they’re able to walk through the anatomy and review.”

Although the value of the anatomy lab experience for the nurse anesthesia program may not be immediately apparent, there are a number of practical applications for which this type of training proves beneficial.

Students are able to participate in gross anatomy labs which reinforce their understanding of airway, vasculature, and nerve structure and location. These are all essential aptitudes for nurse anesthetists who are securing airways, administering regional anesthesia—e.g., for joint surgeries, and placing lines into large central veins for surgical procedures.

Students are also able to learn and refine ultrasound skills, a proficiency for which nurse anesthesia student Lauren Gray says the anatomy lab has been crucial.

“When we go to insert those lines and we’re using ultrasound, we’re seeing what’s underneath the skin,” said Gray. “Ultrasound is definitely a finesse thing and we have to learn it. It’s a big learning curve. But we know where the vasculature is because we’ve seen it in the lab.”

Anatomist Cara Fisher of UNTHSC’s Center for Anatomical Sciences oversees the students’ various lessons in the lab, which are correlated with what they are learning in the classroom. Although Fisher’s students often range from medical students to EMTs, a large part of her role with TCU’s nurse anesthesia students is assisting them in connecting the textbook with real-life applications.

“I really like it when students get that light bulb moment,” said Fisher. “They’ve heard it in lecture and they’ve seen it in a book, but they haven’t been able to really make that connection. To actually show them on a donor, you can see the light go on in their eyes.”

Certainly, Gray knows what Fisher means. Even after five years as a nurse in a critical care setting, Gray says the anatomy lab experience has drastically augmented her understanding of the human body.

“I think the thing I’ve enjoyed the most is all of these eureka moments,” said Gray. “The big thing is being able to actually visualize what’s happening instead of having to see it in an animated video or read about it in a book.”

Although all of Harris College’s nurse anesthesia students have had critical care clinical experience, learning from the cadavers has allowed them to acquire a more well-rounded understanding of human anatomy.

“As a nurse, I worked with heart transplants and heart devices,” said Gray. “The cadaver lab was valuable because I got to see anatomy that I had never seen outside of the OR. Even then, it’s a really small space that they open up during open heart surgery, so this showed us so much more.”

Student Kirby Smith agrees that the lab has been central to developing a more solid understanding of anatomy as it relates to her field.

“Working with the cadavers makes things a little more comfortable and makes concepts more concrete,” Smith said. “I’ve enjoyed learning from Cara Fisher – she takes care of the anatomy and Dr. Galvin then applies what we see in the lab to nurse anesthesia as a practice.”

Student Hannah Honeycutt also believes the lab experience has taught anatomy better than any book ever could.

“There is only so much limited information you can get from a picture,” said Honeycutt. “Learning from Cara Fisher has been great. She’s enthusiastic, has a lot of energy, and she’s really good at what she does.”

While the department has offered a doctorate since 2009, it recently transitioned and is now doctoral-only. Dr. Galvin and the rest of the nurse anesthesia faculty have wasted no time in ensuring theirs is a top-tier program. Their partnership with the UNTHSC Anatomy Lab will remain an important part of that standard.

“I feel so prepared for what’s coming,” said Gray. “The first time I go into the OR I’m going to have an excellent understanding of the pathophysiology and the anatomy.” She adds, “I have loved my education experience. It’s been absolutely wonderful.”