Backcountry medicine and other ramblings

So over spring break I eschewed the normal range of college break activities, such as drinking (too poor), studying (too lazy) and vacationing at the beach (did I mention too poor?). Instead I made the questionable decision to take 11-hour classes every day in order to become a Wilderness First Responder.

Thankfully we did get a rest day or two in the middle of the week, which I used to go hike and explore Whittier, Hope, Girdwood and Kenai, taking advantage of the rare sunshine — though any of my professors reading this should instead assume that I’m lying and worked incredibly hard on whatever project they had assigned me.

WFRs (or “woofers” as they’re casually known) are trained medical professionals that specialize in backcountry medicine. The idea being that while an EMT is no good to you without an ambulance, and a surgeon is no good to you without a sterile operating room, WFRs are trained to treat certain types of wilderness injuries and stabilize the patient until they can be evacuated to a higher degree of medical care.

Simple dislocations, head trauma, severe asthma, anaphylaxis, spinal injuries and wound management are a few of the main concepts we touched upon, but the main idea of the course was improvisation. Contrary to popular belief, we aren’t trained to summon an eagle to swoop down and deliver a defibrillator in the middle of the forest, so much of the course involves using what you have on hand to splint limbs and construct rescue sleds.

Having grown up watching medically accurate documentaries like “Scrubs” and “House,” I actually recognized the odd term here and there. But given that I don’t come from a science background, the course was almost entirely new to me. I came away with a new appreciation for the human body and the sneaking suspicion that I should probably stop feeding mine trash and forcing it not to sleep.

The class itself was fairly diverse, ranging from two outdoorsy college students, a handful of hunting guides and lodge owners, and quite a few remote government employees from Fish and Game and the Department of Natural Resources. What this looked like in practice was a Patagonia convention mixed with an unkempt beard competition. After years of wallowing in the midst of professionally dressed economics majors it was like walking into a classroom and suddenly finding myself transported to the middle of REI in July.

While the first bit of the course was fairly lecture heavy, we quickly progressed into drills intended to make us diagnose and treat patients with no prior information to go on. By day three we started running scenarios intended to simulate large-scale incidents in which seven or eight patients were hurt with varying mechanisms of injury. Everything from car crashes, bike crashes and remote camp mishaps (which fittingly included a sled crash) became fair game and the patients ranged from slightly stressed to unresponsive and bleeding internally.

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If you saw mayhem, madness and spurting blood in the UAA quad or APU ski trails and wondered what catastrophe could have possibly happened, it was probably just us practicing our medical skills under pressure. The mantra of “kill them in here, not out there” was drilled into our skulls for a solid week until everyone in the classes had well surpassed the minimum requirements and passed the exit exam. On our way out we were treated to the sobering fact that, statistically, as least one of us would use the skills we had learned within the next six months.

What had only been a week had instead felt like a solid month of intensive drills that even the most incompetent person couldn’t have helped but learned from. The main takeaway — other than the fact that stressed patients often make stupid decisions — is that a good many of my friends probably could have died or seriously injured themselves on numerous occasions.

So now I’m a Wilderness First Responder. Maybe it will lead to a job someday — and you can bet your ass I’m heavily hyping that certification as I apply for summer internships —  or maybe it will save my own life or someone around me. More likely it means I’m going to have to yell at my friends every time we go out on trips for doing something I’ve now learned is incredibly stupid.

Either way, it’s easily the most productive spring break I’ve ever had, even if I did forget how a normal sleep schedule worked. If you’re ever interested in the course, they are offered through the university on campus, so there’s no excuse about not having time. I’ve run into a lot of idiots in the woods, and while I now realize exactly how much can go wrong, I’m vaguely comforted that there are now 16 more people who have some inkling of what they’re doing.