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In the Flesh: Drexel Biomedical Engineering Students Gain Surgical Insight in Clinical Settings

May 18, 2018

Ellen Garven observing for BMES-596

Ellen Garven (far right), a PhD student in the School of Biomedical Engineering, observes in the catheterization lab at Hahnemann University Hospital as part of her BMES-596 coursework.

This is the first piece in a new DrexelNow series showcasing “A Day in the Class” for some of Drexel University’s most interesting and impactful courses.

Ellen Garven has spent a lot of time this term looking over shoulders at Hahnemann University Hospital.

That’s because the PhD student in the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems chose to take BMES-596 — a clinical lab in which biomedical engineering students have the opportunity to observe basic operative and peri-operative procedures to identify the roles biomedical engineers can play in improving surgical practice.

Once Garven arrives at the hospital for an observation day, she might have to look over one of her classmates’ shoulders as they crowd around the surgical schedule, searching for the best procedure to observe. She might be looking over two doctors’ shoulders in the catheterization lab as they decide the best way to approach the opening of a blocked calcified aorta, drawing up photos from an earlier angiogram. She might even be craning her neck from the corner of an operating room during a live procedure — she might not always have the best view, but Garven can usually count on doctors and nurses to take the time to explain what’s going on and answer her questions.

This hands-on experience has helped Garven learn that going into the clinical side of a future biomedical engineering career is something she could handle.

“Walking into the OR [operating room] for the first time was nerve wracking,” she said. “Like, ‘Am I going to get grossed out and leave the room?’ But I haven’t experienced that so it’s comforting to me knowing that observing and working with surgeons to develop better tools is something I could do in the future and that I would enjoy doing. “

“Walking into the OR [operating room] for the first time was nerve wracking,” she said. “Like, ‘Am I going to get grossed out and leave the room?’ But I haven’t experienced that so it’s comforting to me knowing that observing and working with surgeons to develop better tools is something I could do in the future and that I would enjoy doing. “

“It’s very nice to theoretically study something, but without practical experience, it becomes much harder,” Stein said of the reason for the class’ existence. “This is a way, in a structured environment, where they can learn some of the basics about surgical care and all of the surgical specialties, but also get their hands wet on what it’s like to be in an operating room.”

The culmination of the class is a project in which each student presents an idea for a new biomedical device that solves a problem they witnessed through their observations. Each student presents their problem and engineering concept through a paper and a presentation at the end of term. Stein brings in a panel of other College of Medicine faculty, including the department’s two biomedical engineers, to ask questions and provide feedback to the students.

In the past, Stein has even gone so far as to refer great project ideas and their creators to next steps for production, including the Drexel Areas of Research Excellence (DARE) initiative.

“They come up with ideas, so I matchmake,” he said.

This final project, as well as the overall experience gained, is why Garven has been going to the hospital at least once a week throughout the term to observe. She’ll even arrive early and ask the desk nurse what might be prime pickings, as not all of the students can observe the same procedure at once.

She said she got lost at least two times early on trying to find the scrub room in which the students change into acceptable garb for the OR. They will usually observe procedures on the 8th floor on which Stein says the staff are very familiar with the students and their purpose for being there.

“The nurses know, ‘Oh, you’re one of the engineers! I hate this or this!’ And pitch them an idea,” he said.

If a student is interested in a particular area of expertise, Stein will set them up with a doctor outside of the 8th floor to observe — hence Garven’s visit to the cath lab due to her interest in cardiovascular engineering.

“It’s definitely what you put into it,” she said of the class. “Because it’s self-scheduled, you have to make time for it, and because surgery is unpredictable you don’t always get to see what you planned to. It depends on your time and your interest, but it’s exciting that every time I go it’s just really unique.”

Garven’s way of remembering all of those unique experiences? She always has her phone in her pocket while she’s observing so that she can Google something she’s unfamiliar with.

“My Safari is full of tabs of all the things that I’ve seen,” she said matter-of-factly. “This is kind of my way of keeping notes.”

What’s been most helpful for Garven, despite the tension it might cause in the OR, is observing a surgery that doesn’t go perfectly well. It’s then, she says, that she’s able to recognize when certain instruments are difficult to use, providing ideas for her final project.

“It’s good for us to see them in use and see how someone — not an expert, but someone who is learning — interacts with it, and how we might design the human factors to be easier or more effective,” she said.

Stein said he doesn’t know of any classes like this offered at other universities. He added that the class is also a testament to how Drexel’s College of Medicine has been very flexible and collaborative with other schools at the University. It was originally created by the late Andres Castellanos, MD, who served as the executive vice chair in surgery.

Garven said that she found it funny when she saw an article advertising “hands-on learning” for another biomedical engineering program, but it was just something simulated in a classroom.

“It was very not real world, but it was saying how students can get hands-on experience,” she said. “It’s nothing compared to actually going and seeing it being done.”