It would be too simplistic to call the new Biomedical and Health Sciences Building on the Riverpoint campus in Spokane a “medical school.” Sure, another class of 20 first-year University of Washington med students just arrived this fall. But it’s more than just a med school. The campus was planned to be a pharmacy school, a dental school, and a nursing school, too. And, after nearly a decade of wrangling, it looks like it will finally be a reality.

Despite Washington’s budget woes, the state Legislature ponied up half of the funding for the new building last session, which carries a price tag of $70 million. With the formal groundbreaking ceremony already completed in October, organizers say efforts are well underway to find funding to finish the job.

Unlike many civic projects, this one has the backing of virtually all the region’s players. That’s because it stands to have an enormous ripple effect on the local economy — similar to that of Fairchild Air Force Base. Educating doctors and other health professionals creates jobs, and by bringing medical students to the Inland Northwest, planners hope to also begin remedying the shortage of physicians in the region. Enhanced facilities and new programs could, in turn, attract world-class research teams.

But more than just the building will be new. Planners envision a fresh approach to the training of health care professionals — to make it a place where future physicians train with future nurses and dentists and pharmacists, all the while gaining an appreciation for the skill sets of their colleagues, and getting better at communicating among specialties.

Read on to learn about some of the unique programs already underway, and what may be coming in the future.

Genius Bait

If you build it, the thinking goes, they will come. Of course, that means the opposite is also true. And without state-of-the-art facilities, health sciences officials believe, there’s no room for the best talent to come.

Most of the community-wide excitement over the new building has been about the students it will produce — and the doctor shortage it can help address. But that’s just one benefit. A state-of-the-art biomedical facility that will help attract some of the most intelligent researchers in the nation is an equally important goal.

Spokane — for all its strengths in higher education — has always lacked a research university, something local economic experts have repeatedly said could be crucial for the region’s economy.

Currently, the Riverpoint Campus only has a half-floor of lab space, says Ken Roberts, associate professor in the school of molecular biosciences at Washington State University. That’s long since been booked up.

But the new building will introduce a full three floors of labs — the first building on campus dedicated primarily to research. Even that, within five years, will probably fill up, Roberts guesses.

“We will grow to a point where the new building won’t be enough, very quickly,” Roberts says.

Creating lab space requires more than a sleek office complex, though. As both an education and research facility, the building will have to offer many specialized spaces. In addition to classrooms, there will be rooms to house human cadavers for anatomy students, and a vivarium with its own ventilation system to shelter lab mice. Millions of dollars will be invested in high-tech lab equipment, all of which has particular power and space requirements.

Most of the research in the new facility will likely be pharmaceutical and disease-process related. Gary Pollack, vice provost for health sciences at WSU Spokane, says he’s already been talking with three potential senior faculty members for the college of pharmacy: a specialist in drug behavior in clinical trials, a cancer pharmacologist and a neuropharmacist.

The recruitment pitch goes beyond just state-of-the-art labs. Spokane itself is also a draw — recruiters are looking for researchers who might be tired of the hassles of bigger cities and who may prefer a mid-sized city with easy access to nature hikes, bike rides, mountains and rivers.

And if the right researchers are recruited, Pollack believes the impact on the community could ripple outward for years to come.

“I think it changes everything,” he says. “You bring in highly educated faculty, and then you have the opportunity for new start-up companies to migrate to the area. You can envision an entire economic corridor based on the life sciences.”


Ever stopped to ponder how the medical professionals working on you learned their trades? Sometimes volunteers pretend to be patients and tolerate whatever technique students are practicing. But when the process is painful or uncomfortable — think giving injections, sticking tubes up noses, or using catheters — volunteers are hard to find.

“Simulation is really critical for students so that they get to take what they learned in the classroom and apply it to a patient who will respond appropriately,” says Alli Benjamin, spokeswoman for the WSU College of Nursing. “There are a lot of things that aren’t taught in the classroom setting.”

In the Nursing Building at the Riverpoint Campus, student nurses gather around a $170,000 mannequin called “SimMan 3G” to practice diagnosing what they see based on his dynamic physical appearance. SimMan’s chest appears to breathe, and air can be heard whooshing through his lungs. His heart “beats,” and his guts sound as though food is being digested. He can even cry. (Though, unlike a real person, he has his own IP address.)

“He basically functions as a human, and responds to drug interaction and interaction with the nurses,” Benjamin says.

Today, SimMan’s lips have turned blue, and the team of nurses must figure out how to respond.

But even an advanced mannequin like SimMan turned out to have some shortcomings when the graduate students got their turn with him.

That’s where Martin comes in.

At the risk of being cruel, Martin is a bit of a monster. For starters, he has no legs and no hips. His neck is taped together. Half of his motionless face is missing — covered by a peach-colored rubber flap, like a paralyzed, dismembered opera phantom.

Student Aimee Stormo is carefully threading an endoscope — a lighted tube connected to a video camera — up the mannequin’s nostril, down through the nasal cavity and into the throat in order to get a close look at his vocal cords.

Martin is the product of some creative problem-solving by assistant professor Nancy Potter and former grad student Elise Bendom. For years, the 1940s vintage mannequin had languished in a closet in Pullman. In search of a better practice dummy for students, Potter took an X-Acto knife, hollowed out part of the dummy’s skull, and then constructed convincing nasal cavities, throat structures and vocal cords with $10 worth of foam and superglue.

Then, she applied the final touch — she used elk hair from her husband’s fly-tying kit to create realistic-looking nose hair.

It’s not the perfect simulation — Martin’s nasal passages are a little too wide, and he doesn’t react like a patient would when probed — but Stormo says practicing on Martin has been crucial for her.

“I feel I really have a lot better understanding for the anatomical structure,” Stormo says.

Testing Grounds

William Kannall, a psychologist with a white beard and a smile, leans back in the dentist’s chair after another cleaning. He’s been coming here to get his teeth cleaned for 12 years.

But this isn’t a conventional dentist’s office. Forty-six dental chairs, spanning two adjacent clinics, are lined up like cubicles and manned by EWU juniors and seniors in the dental hygiene program. More than 6,800 people show up every year for low-cost cleanings and fillings.

Normally, a deep cleaning of diseased teeth would cost a thousand dollars. Here, it’s about $120.

Rebecca Stolberg, who teaches clinical dental hygiene at EWU, says the clinic charges about 75 percent less than a typical dental office.

And — considering that the students’ work is examined, guided and double-checked by instructors — patients are usually pleased.

“I get really good care,” Kannall says. “I get a better job here than at the dental office.”

The clinic is also beneficial for the hygienist who cleans his teeth: EWU dental hygiene senior Christina Delarm. She says it gives her practice — and not just with cleaning teeth. She gets a chance to interact with a real client, one who can spit or complain or joke around with her. She develops rapport with her patients, a crucial part of being a dental hygienist.

Over at the Eastern Washington University Hearing and Speech Clinic, 53 graduate students see 70 patients a week. Some of them have had strokes, others have Parkinson’s or cerebral palsy. Whatever the disability, therapy helps people connect with their world.

“We do offer a sliding fee scale for those who don’t have a lot of insurance,” says clinic director Doreen Nicholas. “We’re seeing a wide range of patients and ages from the community.”

For example, one program helps connect Parkinson’s and cerebral palsy patients to the community.

“We work on their communication and provide them with an adaptive phone,” Nicholas says.

While these two clinics are well-established in the community, the plan is to offer care on a much broader scale once the new building is completed. Dennis Dyck, WSU Spokane vice provost for research, says creating a clinic offering care from multiple disciplines — pharmacy, nursing, exercise, nutrition and physical therapy — is the goal.

The central premise of the Riverpoint Campus is an approach that is at the forefront of modern health education: Students training in a variety of health disciplines will learn not only about their chosen fields, but also how to interact and work with other professions.

“From Day One,” Dyck says, “we want our students to be exposed to each other and planning a curriculum that gets them to the idea of working in teams.”

Dancing with Life: Mexican Masks @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through April 16
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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters is the Inlander's senior investigative reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...