CHAMPAIGN – Sean Morrison pretended to be a civilian who'd come in contact with anthrax.
"I played a patient, and I went through seven times, changing my symptoms each time," said Morrison, a working emergency medical technician who's upgrading his skills by studying at Parkland College to work as a paramedic. He was part of a recent disaster drill at Parkland.
"The only way to prepare for a large-scale bioterrorism threat is to practice drills to run through each step," said Morrison, a Gibson City resident. "That helps you speed up your response."
The drill staged at the college Sept. 22 involved hundreds of local and state public health workers and Parkland students and state public health officials. It was part of Parkland's recognition that more needs to be done to prepare health professions students to work in a world where bioterrorism is a distinct threat.
Parkland and Illinois State University officials are working together to make these lessons a permanent part of the health care curriculum at two- and four-year colleges, standardizing instruction so it can be incorporated easily into classroom lessons.
Doug Benson, director of college development, said Parkland and ISU have worked together for two years trying to get money for the project.
"Two years ago, ISU contacted us about getting grant money for a bioterrorism curriculum but at the 11th hour, the government defunded the source," Benson said. "But last spring, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had money available, and I said, 'Here we go.'
"The role of Parkland increased in this proposal; we're the lead community college," he said. "The government was impressed with the breadth of our current health professions program."
There's no curriculum to prepare students in community college health programs to confront biohazard emergencies, said Sandy Sauer, head of Parkland's health professions department.
"It's taught a little bit to students in EMT and paramedic programs who will be first responders," Sauer said. "But we also teach nurses, physical therapists, veterinary technicians, many of whom transfer to four-year programs, and they need that training too."
"Nursing's in transition," she said. "We need to know what procedures to follow moving something like anthrax exposure from the emergency room to other areas. Our vet techs need to know how to care for pets and people who've been exposed. Our dental hygienists need to know how to recognize a biological agent in the mouth."
Benson said the goal is to develop teaching modules that fit into standard curriculum.
"The second year we'll have the modules and we'll know where to put them in the curriculum," he said. "The third year, we can disseminate them to other Illinois community colleges. That frees up ISU to develop curriculum for upper-level and professional courses. We can also develop modules for threats like avian flu and SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrone)."
The curriculum will also be adaptable to nuclear, chemical or natural emergencies and it will fit in Parkland training programs for medical transcribers and assistants, occupational therapists and radiologic, respiratory and surgical technicians
Team members received $270,000 to complete their work; $65,000 of that comes to Parkland, $25,000 each of the first two years and $15,000 the third year. A total of 840 nursing students will have been instructed in bioterrorism preparedness at both a community college and university level by the end of the second year, the grant proposal says. An additional 167 allied health students, 69 dental hygienists and 80 veterinary technology students will have been instructed by the end of the third year, a total of 1,156 students.
Benson said the mock bioterrorism event highlighted the need for advance planning for emergencies. "We thought, 'What would happen if everyone had the same training?" he said.
Morrison said more professionals need training to handle large-scale disasters.
"For a long time, it's just happened in the military or maybe if a hospital disaster coordinator is active," he said. "Widespread drills and a process would help a lot."
"The need has gone up," Morrison said. "People are more aware now of the threats out there and we realize we're lacking the training to get where we need to be."