Health Care Theater classes test out nursing students

While NAU’s Department of Theatre and School of Nursing may seem like an odd combination at first, the university recently created a program that encourages them to use distinct abilities and aid one another in learning. For the first time, students in these programs will exercise their skills while working together in educational roleplays. Theater students will act out various diseases and illnesses, while health care students work to diagnose their theater “patients” through the new Health Care Theater class.

Within the School of Nursing, NAU offers students the weekly opportunity to engage in clinical coursework. This work entails students getting firsthand practice within professional health care locations. Throughout these clinicals, students are able to observe medical practices and conduct minor procedures, as well as basic patient care.

With the new Health Care Theater class, the opportunity exists for nursing students to encounter a diverse range of diseases demonstrated by real people, rather than mannequins. Though the actors are technically healthy, they provide crucial practice for health care students, which they appreciate.

Students in the health care program are able to gain experience in identifying diseases and illnesses. They also have access to advanced resources designed to promote learning and provide hands-on experience. One such resource is a Sim, also known by students as a SimMan. According to the manufacturer, Laerdal Corporation, the Sim is an advanced training mannequin that creates a safe and risk-free learning environment. The mannequin can blink, simulate breathing and replicate heart sounds — it even has a voice.

Junior nursing student Genevieve Standifer explained the importance of receiving more opportunities to practice while getting an education in health care. Standifer partakes in several labs each semester, in addition to attending her weekly clinical training. However, she said she believes the new program is a great way to gain even more preparation for her demanding profession.

“Learning how to interact with real patients in a clinical setting takes time and experience,” Standifer said. “We would get to practice listening to and seeing the differences in different people; everybody is different, and seeing that helps.”

While nursing students take labs with the SimMan seriously, some expect situations acted by real people to be even more intense. Problem-solving for students is the same in both simulations, yet treating a real human cannot be fully comprehended when using an advanced mannequin. Standifer said she suspects seeing the reactions on a real face will hold more weight.

“We have to act like real nurses and problem-solve without the help of someone who is a nurse,” Standifer said. “With real patients you could actually do some harm, depending on what skills are being practiced; making mistakes is a given, [and] we do labs so we can make mistakes and learn from them.” 

Nursing students are not the only group to benefit from the Health Care Theater class, however. The implementation of this coursework opens the door for many in the Department of Theatre to practice the process of portraying their character as a patient with an illness.

Junior Asher Robinson is studying theater with an emphasis on theater studies. He said the new program provides valuable experiences, while proving that acting and theater can be applied to help outside the stage. Robinson explained his excitement for the science and art programs coming together to benefit other people.

“I think it’s a good experience, having to know so much about your character,” Robinson said. “I think it will help me be able to flesh out my characters realistically in plays that I write or act in, and to get that training right now opens a lot of avenues.”

The Health Care Theater class is designed to help students understand their respective studies and enact scenarios in a back-and-forth way. The student acting as the patient will present their case, while a nursing student must utilize their knowledge to respond, Robinson said. He also explained theater students react accordingly to the care provided; here, a deep comprehension of the character is needed to respond with the correct feedback — whether positive or negative.

Robinson expanded on this idea by comparing the interaction to a “play.” Each scenario carries a guideline and plot, wherein theater students must be able to interact based on the choices made in their treatment.

“Improv is a huge part of the simulation,” Robinson said. “If a nurse does something poorly, the character would react differently than if the nurse does something as they’re supposed to. Every simulation will be different depending on who is involved, but it’s a realistic performance that prepares [health care students].”

One theme is giving students the tool of experience, which they may take into future endeavors, whether academic and professional. Through the process of practice, skills are developed and refined. These scenarios are not expected to flow perfectly, as Standifer expressed that mistakes are part of the learning process. However, they allow students to strengthen the skills already possessed, on both the acting and nursing sides.

Junior Kelsey Brown is a theater major with an emphasis in performance, and she said she looks forward to the start of the program, along with the opportunity to be a performer. Brown explained her belief that the entire process — from planning to performance to assessment — will prove beneficial to her learning, and in turn aid in her professional development.

“A lot of creative freedom comes with the opportunity to do this — we don’t have specific lines, and it really is just imagining and understanding your character and backstory,” Brown said. “Simulations actually continue in the professional world, and with the experience we gain we can continue to do [them].”

Brown said through improvisation, as well as the time and research theater students put into their performances, this group will receive better insight into professional roles. Additionally, Brown said the acting of theater students will hopefully make their nursing counterparts more comfortable as they similarly prepare to enter the workforce.

“I’m just excited to actually do the simulation and have the experience and tools under my belt,” Brown said. “It’s awesome being able to collaborate with [nursing students], especially because we never really had a relationship between our departments until now.” 

Brown and other theater students, along with some in the School of Nursing, have already started preparations for their first performances. Meanwhile, some students recently completed their first simulations on Oct. 6. The early stages of the program led to an overall feeling of excitement for most participants.

For the remainder of the academic year and well into the future, theater and nursing students will continue to work through their respective skills as a team. Although an uncommon collaboration, students from both programs look forward to working with one another for betterment as a whole. Hard work on both ends will make for an uncommon, but interesting, beginning of a program students will continue to look forward to on campus.

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