There isn't a sound in the large auditorium as Prof Fergal Malone slits open a woman's abdomen at the start of a Caesarean birth that is being filmed for the benefit of 200 teenagers.
The video link relaying the delivery of a baby girl in the Rotunda Hospital to participants in Ireland’s “My Health” transition year programme is certainly testing whether or not they have the stomach for surgery. They were advised beforehand to put up their hand if they, or somebody beside them, felt faint – but nobody does.
A few put their hands to their faces as all eyes are fixated on one of the two large screens on which Prof Malone is now cutting tissue around the abdominal muscles before separating them to incise the uterus, out of which the amniotic “waters” gush.
Seconds later, the teenagers’ spontaneous chorus of “ahh” that greets the sight of a purple blue baby being pulled out breaks the tension. Then they laugh as the squawking infant is hoisted above the partition blocking the mother’s view, so she can get a quick look at her daughter before she is handed over for post-delivery assessment and the maternal innards are sewn up.
It’s all in a morning’s work for Prof Malone, master of the Rotunda, but it’s a sight that is likely to have made a deep impression on these young wannabe health professionals. Obstetrics is one of the many facets of medicine of which they are getting a glimpse during a week-long programme that had to be curtailed this year due to the weather.
Before the Caesarean birth, they heard from Prof Jonathan McGuinness about what it takes to be a heart surgeon and in the morning’s first session, cystic fibrosis patient Joy O’Brien talked about how a double-lung transplant had saved her from almost-certain death and transformed her life.
This is the sort of opportunity that illustrates the best of transition year – as do the bright-minded, motivated youngsters who are attending. Not surprisingly, places on this taster of the world of medicine are highly coveted, with about 500 schools registering last October for a lottery to select the 200 that could send one pupil each.
Both Patrick Sheridan (16), who attends CBS Ennistymon in Co Clare, and Grace Hayden (16), who is in the fourth-year programme at Dublin's Institute of Education, had to write essays in a contest to be picked by their respective schools.
“It’s brilliant – I am definitely learning a lot,” says Patrick on a break between sessions. “I am learning what I would prefer to do” – and currently he’s leaning towards physiotherapy.
He’s equally enthusiastic about his very busy transition year. “It’s definitely the year you find everything,” he says, adding that it has enabled him to set up a woodwork business too.
Grace really wants to study medicine and this RCSI programme is helping her to see what she might like to specialise in. It was her idea, she says, to move to the Institute after completing her Junior Certificate in Loreto Foxrock, as she thought it might help her focus on the quest to get the exceptionally high points needed for her chosen career.
Sarah McHale (16) from Co Galway is torn between medicine and music in college – "my two babies", she smiles. But the former is definitely becoming more of an option, she says, due to what she's experiencing at the RCSI, not to mention her new-found "addiction" to Grey's Anatomy.
As one of 100 students who opted for transition year at Coláiste Bhaile Chlair in Claregalway, she believes the other 120 students who went straight on to fifth year are "definitely" losing out.
She would have hated to do that, she says, adding that everything she has done this year “is really getting me to think about fifth year, to get my head down and do my work”.