The call came into base around 3pm – a distress signal sent from a group of research scientists who had been working in the nearby woods. The information we received was limited. With only a set a GPS coordinates to guide us to their location, we were left to wonder what exactly had happened. How many were hurt? And what was the extent of their injuries? A bit nervous about what to expect when we arrived on scene, we packed up our gear and took off into the forest.
The relatively short hike to the researchers’ last known location was filled with anticipation, constantly searching for any signs of the victims. All of a sudden, a girl came sprinting down the trail toward us, exclaiming that her friends needed help. Only a few feet away from our team of rescuers, she tripped and fell face-first, landing hard on her outstretched arms.
As she rolled over, we could see a bone protruding from her left forearm. She yelled out in agonizing pain as the color quickly drained from her face. We immediately jumped into action – three rescuers, myself included, stayed behind to tend to her injury, as the rest of our team rushed ahead in search of more wounded.
We moved swiftly and methodically through our assessment. Apart from a few minor bumps and bruises, our patient had no serious injuries other than the open Ulna fracture of her left arm. With one rescuer keeping her calm and diverting her attention away from the exposed bone, we were able to pull traction in line and build a secure splint. Though in a considerable amount of pain, and no doubt a bit shaken up, our patient would be able to walk out of the forest with our assistance.
While we finished bandaging up our patient, our team leader came over to brief us on the rest of the scene. Pulling me aside, he explained that a fallen tree was the cause of the accident, leaving three other victims wounded. I noticed the commotion ahead on the trail as I listened intently to the list of injuries.
One woman had a broken nose and a dislocated patella, but with the help of a walking knee splint and a modified crutch, she would be able to walk out of the woods to safety. In a more serious situation, another girl was found with her back impaled by a root sticking up from the ground, leaving her skewered to the earth. After some tough decisions of how exactly to move her, rescuers were able to lift her off of the root and control the bleeding. Though she would need to be closely monitored, she would also be able to walk to the rescue helicopter just outside the forest.
The greatest challenge came with the most serious of the injuries: a man had been trapped by the fallen tree, causing possible spine damage and breaking his femur in two. The log had been removed from his crushed leg, and a traction splint had immediately been applied. But now came the difficult task of loading the patient into a litter and getting him to the rescue helicopter as quickly as possible.
The narrow trail made transport difficult, and the forest of poison ivy on either side didn’t allow much room for error. Even with two rescue teams taking turns carrying the litter, the process was slow and tiring. Knowing that time was running out, adrenaline seemed to take over our team. We knew that we had to do everything we could to save our patient…even if this was just a drill…
Scenarios such as these were part of our daily routine at the Wilderness First Responder (WFR) certification program I attended last month in Milledgeville, Georgia. This 10-day, all intensive course is designed to prepare students to deal with medical emergencies in remote settings. Wilderness First Responders play a critical role in backcountry accidents, especially since wilderness emergencies occur at least an hour away from definitive care. Knowing what to do in these types of situations is crucial, and the WFR program gives students the skill sets they need to help save lives.
The course I attended was led by experienced instructors from the Wilderness Medicine Institute (WMI), a division of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). This nationally recognized program has a demanding 80-hour curriculum, covering everything from burns and broken bones to spinal injuries and evacuation techniques. The majority of the course is spent doing outdoor scenarios and mock rescues, providing students with hands-on training. This practical teaching approach made my personal experience very enjoyable and beneficial.
When first arriving at the course, I was excited to meet my fellow classmates. It was fun to see the different personalities that had been brought together. We all shared the same love for the outdoors, and the connections and friendships made were almost instant. This camaraderie proved to be important, as we would need to quickly learn to trust each other. We knew that teamwork would play an essential part in successful rescues, and throughout the course our ability to work together would be tested.
Classes began every morning at 8am and carried on until at least 5:30pm every night. Even though the days were long, classes and scenarios were really interesting and exciting, thanks to our incredible instructors. Whenever we felt tired, they would remind us of the lives of our future patients. They challenged us with new scenarios every day, constantly building on what we had previously learned. I was surprised how real it all felt – we were only participating in staged scenarios, but the nerves, adrenaline and pressure were hard to ignore.
Towards the end of the course, the skills we had learned were put to the test during the infamous “night rescue.” I am unfortunately sworn to secrecy on the happenings of that night, but I know that it is one that will not soon be forgotten. This was definitely one of the highlights of the WFR course, and certainly helped us prepare for our final exams.
For me, the WFR program was one crazy, awesome, unpredictable experience. The blood and broken bones may have been fake, but the hard work and lasting friendships were as real as could be. This course has highlighted the importance of wilderness medicine education, and I absolutely recommend it to anyone who enjoys spending time in the backcountry. Congratulations to our graduated class, and special thanks to our amazing instructors!
Wilderness First Responder Photo Album
Trails of Freedom
NOLS Wilderness First Responder
Wilderness Medicine Institute, National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS)