Emergency Medicine in the Wilderness
A Leadership Experience
This summer, I had the incredible opportunity to learn about the thrilling field of wilderness medicine. Through the University of Colorado School of Medicine, I participated in an Emergency Medicine in the Wilderness program designed specifically for pre-med undergraduate students. The first week of this program occurred at the Anschutz Medical Campus where I attended lectures, networked with medical professionals, and practiced skills in an educational environment that I would need for an emergency situation in the wilderness. The second week of the program put this knowledge and skillset to the test as we camped and backpacked our way through Golden, Colorado, facing emergency scenarios along the way. With minimal resources and an elevation of 9,500 feet, we were forced to work skillfully and efficiently to “save” our peers and instructors in a variety of simulated emergencies.
Although the purpose of this program was to learn about wilderness medicine, I ended up learning the most about myself. I was mentally and physically pushed throughout this experience in ways I never thought possible. Our first week of lectures and labs was a rigorous schedule of learning, sometimes ten hours per day, that mimicked a true medical school format. Our second week in the wilderness was even more difficult as the simulated emergency scenarios could occur anywhere at any time all with the added pressures of backcountry living. This high demand uncovered a resiliency I did not know I had and the high-stress environment revealed my ability to remain calm and rational in a variety of situations. Other than these revelations, I learned an incredible amount of skills and methods to treat a patient in the wilderness and about emergency medicine as a field. Our lectures and faculty presentations from physicians, physician’s assistants, paramedics, wilderness experts, and hospital administrators taught me how a hospital functions and what roles the emergency department plays. Health care is a major topic of current political events and I was shocked to see the stark effects of recent health policies in such a short amount of time. This program truly changed what I thought I knew about not only about myself, but about medicine as a whole and the future of healthcare.
One of the most enlightening experiences I had during this program actually occurred on the first day. I had the opportunity to take a break from lectures to shadow paramedics at a local fire department in Aurora, CO and ride along with their EMS team. Although my time with them was thankfully uneventful, the paramedics shares dozens of stories about medical cases they have seen and common reasons they are called throughout the community. After mentioning I have an interest in obstetrics, one of the paramedics began sharing stories of the seventeen babies he has delivered and began teaching me terminology and techniques for a successful delivery with little to no supplies! The rest of the team had plenty to share as well from tips on how to stay calm during an emergency to tools in their medical kits and how to use them. This shadowing experience was only a small portion of my itinerary but it was incredibly valuable to see the implications of emergency medicine at the community level. Here, EMS workers have the special ability to provide emergency care and public health education to their own neighbors.
Of all the lectures I attended at Anschutz medical campus, my favorites by far were those that allowed me to engage in hands-on learning. The undergraduate pre-med curriculum is largely focused on abstract ideas in basic science. This program, however, gave me an opportunity to actually learn medical principals such as how to build a shin splint, what medications to give to a patient suffering from altitude sickness, and even how to diagnose different causes of abdominal pain. Our lectures were a very realistic introduction to medical school and gave tremendous insight into the process of becoming an M.D. or P.A. Because we were actively involved in the learning process, we as students also had the unique opportunity to be each other’s patients and practice splints, tourniquets, and other first aid with our peers. Not only did this program allow me to have a greater understanding of medicine from a physician’s perspective, but also appreciate the empathy and compassion desired from patients.
The second week of this program at Camp Granite Lake in Boulder was unlike anything I have ever experienced. Our lectures continued in the wilderness setting and topics were directly applicable to our environment, especially those relating to altitude. Work was balanced with play however and we were fortunate to end our educational sessions with hiking, rock climbing, and exploring our surroundings. This week was centered around realistic emergency scenarios and practicing these skills in a genuine wilderness setting reiterated my training from the first week. Here, I developed great confidence in my skills and an ability to thrive under pressure with merely a backpack’s worth of supplies. Our scenarios varied in regularity and extremity from a simple case of heat exhaustion to a complex triage of patients injured in rock fall. Though I spent the beginning of the program afraid of this intensity, I grew to love not knowing what cases would come next and watching myself become more efficient with each challenge.
These two weeks in Colorado left me with memories and skills I will take with me in my next years at Ohio State and beyond. In the academic setting of Ohio State, I have a reignited passion for medicine and greater understanding of my professional trajectory. In my everyday life, I am confident in my ability to thrive in the midst of an emergency and help those who cannot help themselves. I am now a certified Wilderness First Responder trained in CPR and have a strong foundation of emergency medicine knowledge and leadership experience to help a patient in the wilderness.