LAWRENCE — Pay no attention to that woman behind the curtain.
She's Jackie Long-Goding, dean of health professions at Northern Essex Community College.
She can often be found behind a privacy screen in the college's mock hospital room, typing away on a laptop or speaking furtively into a microphone, much like the character in the "Wizard of Oz."
But instead of a girl from Kansas and her odd assortment of friends, the target of Long-Goding's secretive machinations is a group of respiratory therapy, paramedic and nursing students hovering over a realistic manikin patient known as Sim-Man.
In the last several years, the college at 24 Franklin St. has invested $100,000 in a family of simulated people that includes Sim-Man and a pregnant woman, plus a child and a baby for pediatric training.
This spring, the two-year college will graduate its first group of students who have been training for a full year on the programmable humanoid robots.
During classes, Long-Goding sits behind the privacy screen typing commands into a laptop connected to the manikin via USB cables. She watches and listens to the students via a Web cam as they puzzle over a series of symptoms.
Long-Goding can change the symptoms depending on what the students do. If they do something wrong, Sim-Man's condition worsens. If they do something right, he gets better. And he, or she, talks to the students either through a microphone or through a series of responses programmed into the computer software.
"I can also make his vital signs change," she said, motioning to a monitor showing the manikin's temperature, oxygen levels, heart rate and other conditions.
Sim-Man sometimes plays a car crash victim, complete with broken arms and legs or bones sticking through his rubbery skin.
Kristina Farris, 27, a paramedic student from Methuen, said Sim-Man is lifelike — the computer can make his teeth clench and his air passage constrict, mocking a real-life situation that may occur when a patient is having difficulty breathing.
"It's valuable to know what to do when his airway swells up," she said. "You have to try to intubate, and if that doesn't work, you have to put a needle in his neck."
Farris said the hands-on training is better than a classroom lecture.
"It's not somebody just throwing words at you," she said. "You are actually doing it."
Long-Goding said 152 students will graduate this spring with extensive training with the simulated patients.
The number will grow when the college opens its new medical technology center on Essex Street sometime in the next few years.
In the new facility, Long-Goding hopes to have a mock hospital, complete with an emergency room, exam rooms and a large "staff."
"I'm looking forward to doing interdisciplinary work — simulations that would be more realistic," she said. "Paramedics would bring the manikin to the emergency room, respiratory therapists would be there to assess the patient, radiation technology students would be using portable X-ray machines, and college staff would be there acting as physicians. We can't do that now. We just don't have the room."