Fla. paramedics participate in virtual dementia training

The program teaches responders how to approach dementia patients and allows them to experience the symptoms


Scroll to the bottom to watch first responders take the virtual dementia tour. 

Naples Daily News, Fla.

COLLIER COUNTY, Fla. — Malinda Ragoonath and Juan Alcantara are seasoned paramedics.

But on a recent afternoon in a darkened room in the Collier County Emergency Operations Center, the two were stumped.

Their tasks were simple enough. Apply a Band-Aid to a mannequin. Place a nasal cannula on another mannequin’s head. Wrap a bandage around the mannequin’s arm. Insert a device used to intubate into the mannequin’s mouth.

Although the two paramedics had performed the procedures many times before, this time they were disoriented and perplexed, gingerly feeling their way around the room and trying to figure out what they had to do.

Capt. Tony Maro, with Collier County Emergency Medical Services, was observing their every move, taking notes and trying to reassure them afterward.

“Don’t feel embarrassed of how many things you got right, how many things you got wrong, whatever,” he told them once the exercise concluded. “I’ve had people come in here holding on to the walls, because of the neuropathy (pain from nerve damage) in their feet. … I’ve had people come in here and scream. I’ve had people hold on to their partner.”

Ragoonath and Alcantara were among more than 300 first responders who participated in a virtual dementia tour where they wore gear to simulate dementia symptoms. The excercise is part of a countywide effort to help emergency personnel better understand and be able to treat dementia patients.

Dementia, which is caused by damage to brain cells, can affect a person’s memory, their processing of language, their vision, their motor skills, their ability to focus and pay attention, and their reasoning and judgement.

The program — a joint endeavor between Collier County EMS and Barrington Terrace, an assisted living and memory care community in East Naples — teaches first responders how to approach dementia patients and allows them to experience the symptoms. Over the course of 10 days, emergency personnel from all corners of Collier County participated in the free training, which concluded Wednesday.

First responders like Ragoonath and Alcantara donned sunglasses that blurred their vision and mimicked glaucoma, wore latex gloves underneath heavy gardening gloves to limit their dexterity, had spiky insoles in their shoes to imitate neuropathy and headphones covering their ears blaring sirens and other noises to disorient them.

Then they had to perform a handful of tasks — some nonmedical, like filling a cup with water and drinking it or finding a necktie and putting it on, and others related to their profession — in a dim room for about 15 minutes.

For Ragoonath and Alcantara the virtual dementia tour was “eye-opening” and “humbling.”

“It was almost like sensory overload,” said Ragoonath, who has been with Collier County EMS since 2006. “Not enough lighting. The noise that’s coming through here. And you can’t even see well. So the senses, you’re just completely overloaded. Your feet, you feel the pain.”

Alcantra, an engineer and paramedic with the North Collier Fire Control and Rescue District since 2007, said the tour helped them understand what some of their patients feel and go through.

“Puts you in their shoes,” he said. “That’s something that’s hard to do. But this exercise definitely did that.”

It’s just what Tammy DeCaro, executive director of Barrington Terrace, and her team hoped to accomplish.

For first responders treating a patient with dementia, it’s important to understand that the condition is permanent and can’t be changed, she said.

“We have to change how we think in order to get into that person’s reality in order to help them,” DeCaro said.

And with about 13,000 people in Collier County with cognitive impairment, educating first responders who may encounter dementia patients on a daily basis is key, she said.

“Giving them the tools on how to step back and approach slowly, wait for the right response, will let their call go better,” DeCaro said. “It will make that patient feel like they’re not as scared, not as worried, not as agitated. The outcome could mean a nice, peaceful trip to the emergency room.”

The loss of control that participants often experience during a virtual dementia tour, which Barrington Terrace also offers free to the public, can be especially difficult for first responders, DeCaro said.

“They are a group of people who are used to being in control,” she said. “And they’ve had some challenges adjusting to giving up that control and really experiencing it.”

The next free public virtual dementia tour is 1-4:30 p.m. Dec. 6 at Barrington Terrace, 5175 U.S. 41 E. RSVP at 239-775-5050 or naplesrecept@arborcompany.com.

Copyright 2016 Naples Daily News
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