As a 'stage manager' of medical theater, he's ... scary good
CHAMPAIGN — When Jim Rowland dressed as a green-faced witch with a hooked nose and protruding chin for a Halloween office party last year, he didn't wear a mask he'd purchased.
He created the horrifying visage himself, using two prosthetic devices that he glued onto his face and silicone rubber to hide the seams. He covered that with a ghoulish shade of Ben Nye creme makeup.
After he showed up at the party, his colleagues didn't recognize him.
In fact, some thought the costumed witch was a cast member from the popular musical "Wicked."
Rowland, who won first place in the office costume contest, created the old-hag look using theatrical and Hollywood special effects — the same materials he uses as simulation specialist for the St. Francis Medical Center and Jump Trading Simulation and Education Center in Peoria.
Rowland, who lives in Champaign, has become so proficient in just 3 1/2 years of supporting medical simulations that he leads workshops for industry leaders. His work also is featured on Behind the Sim Curtain, an online forum for the "stage managers of medical theater."
Rowland could probably create special effects for theater or movies. But he would rather stay where he is: He believes his job of enhancing realism in medical training is a higher calling.
"First of all, because of the possibility of enhancing patient outcomes and second, because of the possibility of lowering medical costs by training individuals to become more effective in what to look for, what different things look like," he said.
And he believes his life experiences so far have led to what he calls his dream job.
"It makes everything linear instead of random," he said.
After graduating from Western Illinois University with a degree in liberal arts and sciences, Rowland became an Army helicopter pilot, gaining experience in medical simulations and other training exercises.
He later worked as a civilian paramedic, seeing real-life injuries that help him create in his labs today realistic-looking lacerations, burns, melanomas, deformities and new models for medical exams.
Rowland also has worked as an emergency medical services trainer and educator, including in Maui, where he was the EMS coordinator for Maui County.
He's been on the other side, too. He's had two heart attacks, one during bypass surgery last year. He was on the table for 11 hours and nearly died.
Those experiences make him more empathetic toward patients and enable him to provide, with gravitas, the voice of a medical mannikin.
"It all leads here," he said.
"Here" is his lab at EnterpriseWorks in the University of Illinois Research Park in Champaign.
"Welcome to my laboratory, or Jim's Little House of Horrors," Rowland joked as he welcomed a News-Gazette photographer and reporter recently into his brightly lit lab.
He also has a lab at the Jump Trading Simulation and Education Center, a collaboration between St. Francis Medical Center and the UI College of Medicine-Peoria. He splits his time between both places.
Rowland, 58, began working at the college in 2009 as coordinator of medical education programs, with the aim of supporting medical simulations.
At his lab in Champaign, Rowland showed us some of his special effects: Paper clay to sculpt body-part models. High-quality theatrical makeup. A set of watercolors. Jugs of silicone rubber in liquid form with the trade names Dragon Skin, Slacker and Smooth-Cast 320.
"What's fascinating about this is it's liquid plastic," he said as he poured some Smooth-Cast 320 into a small glass. "So once we mix this up thoroughly and just let it sit, it will take three to five minutes to turn into a hard plastic."
He planned to use it to help build the core of an exam model. For a more realistic feel, he would put over it a layer of softer silicone rubber.
"I have different materials to represent the different feels of skin versus muscle versus organ," he said. "They're all different."
He creates most of the simulations at the request of College of Medicine professors as well as for the Jump Trading Simulation and Education Center, a state-of-the-art facility that resembles a real hospital.
For example, a dermatology professor once wanted a believable melanoma to help train internist residents on how to spot the skin cancer.
Rowland also put together, at the request of another professor, an aortic aneurysm training device that was not on the market at the time.
He's fashioned a simulated burn wound that combines superficial, partial and full-thickness burns, the medical terms now used for what were called first-, second- and third-degree burns.
Another of his simulations is a laceration that can be stretched across the forehead of a model to represent a bar-fight wound.
"You can peel it off and use it again," he said; he used wax to build up the nose to have it appear broken.
He's also created a frostbite simulation, with the injuries representing moderate to severe cases.
In addition, Rowland has carried out what he calls simple repair jobs. One was on an Annie, a medical mannikin built in the 1980s for CPR training.
"I took her and revised her by putting a tracheotomy in her throat and giving her a central line and chest tube," he said. "Now the old mannikin has found new life and is used to train nurses and nursing students."
And it was his idea to use a medical mannikin to demonstrate during a 2009 talk to medical professionals and lay people how medical simulation works.
He dressed the mannikin in a suit and blue tie, exactly what he was wearing at the time, and placed it behind a table on stage. While giving his talk, Rowland faked a heart attack. After collapsing he crawled off stage, leaving the fallen mannikin in his place.
A doctor planted in the front row rushed to treat "Rowland." Two more people dressed like emergency medical technicians waiting backstage carted the dummy clone away.
"The audience was quite surprised, and a doctor in the audience told me later he was ready to go on stage to help," Rowland said.
Rowland is basically self-taught, learning special effects techniques through trial and error and by reading books on theatrical and Hollywood special effects. He's also taken simulation instructor workshops at Harvard and the Mayo Clinic and from the Peter M. Winter Institute for Simulation Education and Research and from Medical Education Technologies Inc.
"They call it moulage in the industry because it's not limited to creating wounds or mannikins," he said.
Besides the visual or tactile special effects, moulage — Rowland called it a burgeoning career field — involves sounds and possibly smells.
"Say, a bowel that's been perforated," he replied. "Or the smell of burns. We can simulate that with smoke. The thing about smell is you want to do it in your last simulation, not your first, because the smell lingers."