'Little Couple' doctor using computerized mannequins to train parents of preemies

HOUSTON (KHOU) -- Later this month, Loren Wilkerson will finally take her son Aaron home from the neonatal intensive care unit at Texas Children's Hospital. He will still be connected to a tangle of wires and tubes helping keep him alive. But by then Loren Wilkerson will have spent several hours with a computerized infant-sized mannequin learning the techniques she may need to save her son's life.

Aaron Wilkerson was born at 33 weeks gestation. He has spent the first seven months of his life in the Texas Children's NICU. He has had three surgeries to correct intestinal abnormalities, spent time on a heart-lung machine, and is still receiving breathing assistance from a ventilator via a tracheostomy: breathing assistance likely to remain necessary for the first few years of his life.

"Just overall health issues later on," Wilkerson said admitting that she is concerned about the care her son will need at home. "And just if we're gonna be able to do it."

"We try to train the parents to be experts," said Dr. Jennifer Arnold, medical director of Texas Children's Simulation Center where parents whose babies and children are being discharged on ventilators and with tracheostomies can get the training they need.

The pilot program involves practicing four "airway emergency scenarios" including water from a humidified ventilator circuit in the tracheostomy tube, a tube obstruction, accidental dislodgement of the tracheostomy, and what to do in the event of a power failure. The scenarios, practiced on an infant-sized mannequin outfitted with tracheostomy tubes and connected to a computer interface monitored by Dr. Arnold and her staff, were created based on the experiences of former Texas Children's NICU parents after their child was discharged from the hospital.

Dr. Arnold says Texas Children's Newborn Center discharges between 30 and 50 patients a year who are on ventilators and have tracheostomies.

The training sessions are recorded on a series of cameras so the doctors and parents can review their procedures. Loren Wilkerson included her 13-year-old daughter Natalie in the training program.

"Natalie you're going to be a great big sister taking care of Aaron at home," said Dr. Arnold. "It's pretty impressive."

Arnold is also the reality TV star from The Learning Channel series "The Little Couple" who recently began filming for her family's seventh season. She is also returning to her work as a Texas Children's neonatologist full-time after recovering from treatment for a rare form of uterine cancer.

"I'm actually doing really well. I'm back to full time work, full-time mom, full-time everything, crazy. And it's good to feel like yourself again."

Which means she is fully focused on her profession again and getting as many parents as possible through the simulation program. The pilot program, completed in July and currently in a study phase, has trained 10 families so far.

"But the idea is to save lives, decrease mortality, and also to decrease (hospital) re-admissions for things that the parents may not just know how to handle."

Arnold has already received a letter from one family thanking them for the SIM program. They used the techniques they learned to revive their child during a breathing emergency.

"That's all the proof that I need that this is important," said Arnold. "But at the same time, when you're talking about doing this on a grand scale you have to look at bigger outcomes, long term outcomes," she said of plans to continue tracking graduates of the simulation program to make sure the program is having the intended results.

"By training these families in a hands-on way and mimicking real-life scenarios, we are empowering parents and arming them with the skills they need to perform life-saving care if their by experiences an emergency at home."

Aaron Wilkerson is expected to leave the hospital for the first time later this month.



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