A PACKED lecture hall in Cork University Hospital watches via live video link as Matt Hewitt’s surgical team, in the adjoining maternity hospital, prepares a patient for surgery. As the first incision is made, Hewitt thanks the parents who have given their consent for this caesarean section to be live-streamed.
The operation is fast. Many of the onlookers, who are not medical students, wince as the surgical team tugs briskly down on layers of incised tissue to expose the uterine wall, which is veined and bulging. The registrar tells us that amniotic fluid will be ejected when the uterus is cut, but, despite the warning, there are still a few gasps and averted gazes.
When the baby emerges, scrunch-faced and bewildered, the room bursts into applause. Hewitt talks us through the rest of the procedure, the delivery of the placenta and the suturing, over the hearty cries of the healthy, 3.8kg baby girl who has just entered the world. It is an emotional experience for these transition-year secondary school students, who have travelled from all over the country for Prep-For-Med, UCC School of Medicine’s outreach programme, which gives prospective applicants an insight into a career in medicine.
The group consists of 106 transition-year students and 53 career guidance counsellors, who rotate in small groups through specially designed stations, replicating the experience of medical students.
Siún O’Flynn, head of medical education at the School of Medicine, says the day enables students to make as informed a decision as they can when considering medicine.
“Our drop-out rates in medical schools in Ireland have fallen to 3% in recent years, and that’s very low,” O’Flynn says. “The idea behind today is to minimise those rates even more, because there’s such a demand for places that each and every time someone drops out, they have blocked a place for somebody else.”
The programme also reaches out to schools where application rates to medicine are low. “There is a socio-economic bias in second-level achievement and that applies to everything, not just medicine,” O’Flynn says. “The truth is that candidates from deprived areas are less likely to apply for medicine than candidates from affluent areas. We want to show them that the doors are open.”
The morning’s programme, in Brookfield Health Sciences Building, lets the secondary-school students rotate between labs that replicate conditions on hospital wards. In one room, a nurse talks a group of students through a classic heart-attack scenario. She’s using METIman, a state-of-the-art patient simulator used by medical students to practice their responses to emergencies. Costing €1m, METIman breathes, talks, has a pulse, responds to treatment and wears a rather natty flat-cap. The nurse enlists the students’ help with various aspects of METIman’s care, from administering an oral spray to simulating the use of a defibrillator.
In another lab, rows of disembodied plastic arms are set up on tables for students to practise taking blood. “When you’re in the vein, you get the blood flowing back, so you know you’re in the right place,” says Dr Rob Gaffney, who teaches clinical skills. It’s common for students to faint when they hit the vein and the blood flows. This morning, there have been two fainters. “They normally get over it; you just have to learn to take the emotional component out of it,” Gaffney says.
Dr Bridget Maher, senior lecturer in medical education, says a little squeamishness is no reason to be discouraged about applying for medicine. “You have to be a hard worker, determined, passionate and study hard, but there’s room for all different personalities in medicine,” Maher says. “Just because a student gets a little weak at the sight of blood, it’s no reason to not study medicine.”
Third-year medical students answer questions and give the visitors an insight into their daily lives. Dr Maher says this feedback is important. “They ask them about getting in and studying, but, also, they often ask them if they maintain their social life and outside activities, which is, of course, important,” she says.
Elaine Desmond, mother of TY student Cliodhna Duggan, from Coláiste Iosagáin, in Stillorgan, is herself a GP and studied in UCC. She’s delighted by the advances in the School of Medicine. “This is absolutely amazing! When I studied in UCC, none of these buildings were even here. This day is brilliant, because you do really have to want to do medicine; it is very hard work. I don’t know if Cliodhna will choose medicine, but I just want her to see what’s out there.”
Over at the FLAME (Facility for Learning Anatomy, Morphology and Embryology) lab, a group of guidance counsellors peers apprehensively through the door, before entering, but the models on the work surfaces are plastic. Dr Joy Balta, one of a team of enthusiastic senior medical demonstrators, says there is a strictly-observed set of rules to protect the dignity of those who have donated their bodies for research; while there are some plasticised human organs on display, cadavers are out of sight of visitors.
Despite advances in virtual teaching programmes and plastic models, senior medical demonstrators still count on donated bodies for their classes. Ahmad Hassan Sheikh has a surgical background and is adamant that there’s no substitute for working on cadavers. “There’s a Confucian saying: ‘I hear, I forget; I see, I remember; I do, and I understand’,” he says. “There are many new ways, lots of technologies, but they are not sufficient. All of that stuff has to supplement this.”
After lunch, the students and guidance counsellors go to Cork University Hospital (CUH), where talks will include State pathologist, Dr Margaret Bolster, on crime-scene forensics, and Jason Van der Velde, of West Cork Rapid Response Unit, on working at the front line of emergency care, as well as the Caesarian section by Hewitt’s team.
As students file out of the lecture hall after the c-section, some are silent and thoughtful while others chat animatedly about what they’ve seen. All of them are positive. Dan O’Keeffe, of Blackwater Community School, in Lismore, found the c-section “quite shocking”, but is undeterred in his aspiration to become a GP.
“Now, I definitely think that I’m going to go down the path of medicine,” Jordan Cliffe, from Coláiste na Rinne, in Co. Waterford, says.
The co-winner of this year’s BT young scientist and technology exhibition, Ian O’Sullivan, of Coláiste Treasa, in Kanturk, has thoroughly enjoyed the day. What was his favourite part? “I think it was the talk from the pathologist. That was really interesting,” he said. Like the other students, he’s inspired by the day and keener than ever to apply for the School of Medicine. “This has really convinced me. Everything we saw was really good, the facilities are top-notch.”