Artistry in Anatomy – A couple schooled in special effects make their mark in medical models
Inside a nondescript building on the stretch of Main Street connecting Great Barrington with Sheffield is a bustling enterprise where thousands of intricate mimetic (“imitative”) medical models have been designed, manufactured, and shipped across the U.S. and to more than 50 countries around the world for use in simulated surgical training.
In any given year, between 200 and 400 pieces are produced in this location, says Lisa Chamberlain, co-founder with her husband Eric of The Chamberlain Group, celebrating its 20th anniversary. Seventy percent of the company’s revenue comes from commercial entities such as pharmaceutical and biotech companies, as well as medical device suppliers like Johnson & Johnson.
“Most of our domestic work comes over the transom and is built on relationships, relationships, relationships,” adds Lisa.
How a couple of top-notch film professionals ended up creating anatomical parts out of silicone and polymer for clinician training is a matter of serendipity. The couple met at the Academy-Award-winning R/GA design company in New York City in the 1980s. Lisa was an intern with an MFA in theater management from Yale who went on to become a full-time producer; Eric, some 15 years older, was head of physical effects. It was after six years of working together in New York City, then seven years of not working together, when they met up again in the Berkshires in 1995 after they had taken jobs on different movies.
Paths crossed, the two became partners in life and work, and more collaborations on commercials and movies ensued. While handling special effects for The Matrix, they received an out-of-the-blue phone call from a medical device executive saying, “Your silicone supplier tells me you make excellent models for movies, how about making medical models?”
“We said ‘Sure, what are those?’ That literally was the phone call that got us into this business,” says Lisa.
“We took all the innovative stuff we had done for films and our artistic abilities and applied them to this life-changing industry instead,” says Eric.
With an initial investment of $12,000, they formed The Chamberlain Group with Eric’s brother Craig (now retired) and Steven Thurn (lead designer and sculptor) and set up shop in Sheffield. Unlike the models that were then available—cold, hard things you see in doctor’s offices, as the couple describes them—they set out to create ones that were more organic, with Eric patenting a four-chamber beating-heart model early on. They also saw an opportunity to disrupt the “see one, do one, teach one” tradition, meaning residents are expected to learn in real-time, live-patient procedures.
“That model is not entirely gone, nor should it be because obviously experience plays a big role in the process,” says Lisa. “But there is also a place for deliberate practice.” Eric points to the fact that training is often done on animals, who end up dying. “We have been able to persuade the teachers to use our models instead,” he says. “That’s been a big part of our journey.”
Not that there wasn’t a steep learning curve. “System by system, we had to collaborate with our clients to be cumulatively educated in anatomy and surgical procedures.” says Lisa.
Today, The Chamberlain Group counts 20 employees working out of 10,000 square feet. In the beginning everything was sculpted by hand; now they marry computer 3-D sculpting with industrial-style manufacturing CAD in the design and development phase and use 3-D printers (they were early adopters) for fast-track prototyping and printing actual parts, such as pelvic bones.
They’ve seen the burgeoning of the simulation industry in the past two decades. One of their clients at the University of Nebraska Medical Center is building a 200,000-square-foot facility that is essentially a simulation center, among other things.
The Chamberlains say they have tried to push what they call the tissue-to-technology piece: “Whatever that technology is, whether it’s a suture or catheter or surgical robot, our models create an appropriately realistic educational experience for the clinicians,” says Lisa. “In doing so, we feel like we’ve made some small contribution to people being accepting of this as a modality by which you can legitimately teach and learn.”