Saving lives in the backcountry
Liana Rose Campus’ heart was acting up. She was displaying signs of angina, chest pain brought on by an overworked heart, and her face was pale. She stumbled as she walked across the Free Speech Area at Chico State University. Two medics rushed to help her.
Not to worry: Campus was faking it. She was part of a training program in wilderness emergency medicine, and her role was to be “sick.” The group had just learned about angina, and two of her classmates were about to test what they learned.
The students had to ask Campus the right questions, monitor her and assure that any medicine they gave her wouldn’t react with anything else she’d taken. If they didn’t do any of these things, the teacher had told Campus to “pass out"—and then “die.”
Fortunately, Sarah Perfelto and Steven Scarborough asked the right questions, gave her the nitroglycerin she needed and monitored her condition. She “lived.”
Over several days last week and the week before, Campus and the rest of her class studied to become wilderness first responders—backcountry medics—through the Wilderness Medical Institute, a program offered by the National Outdoor Leadership School and Adventure Outings at Chico State.
Campus comes from Seattle, though she’s staying in Nevada City for the summer. The course is a requirement to lead wilderness trips at her school, the University of Puget Sound, and this one is the closest she could find.
A biology major, she isn’t yet sure what work she wants to do, but she knows she wants to work outdoors. And she wants to be prepared for injuries.
“There have been a couple times when someone I was with crashed their bike or fell down a hill,” she explained.
Adam Wagner and Jessica DeMartin, both certified wilderness EMTs, have been teaching for more than four years. DeMartin works with search-and-rescue organizations and wilderness-therapy programs for teenagers as well as other wilderness education. Wagner is a member of the ski patrol on Mt. Hood and volunteers in South American clinics as well as with an outdoors aftercare program for drug addicts.
The classes convened in an air-conditioned room in the student union, but they can be held anywhere, even on glaciers and even in bad weather, depending on who’s sponsoring the class.
“Oh man, I’ve had a lot of torrential downpours, lots of blizzards,” Wagner said. “Those are excellent for this class because they get people to really take care of their patients.”
The teaching boils down to one thing: “Taking care of people who are in an extended setting,” as DeMartin put it. “That can range from a whole set of traveler’s illnesses to broken bones.”
When finished, the medics were certified to operate beyond the “golden hour,” or far enough into the backcountry to be more than an hour from modern medical care.
Both teachers said that the best part of their job was empowering the students. “Day one a lot of them don’t know anything about medicine,” Wagner explained. “By the last day they know almost every injury that can occur in the backcountry and how to take care of it and make good decisions.”
To prepare the students for the worst, the scenarios got more complicated as the class went along. Everything learned up to a scenario—hypothermia, trauma or spinal injury—can accompany a new ailment.
Wagner said that the scenarios tell the teachers how the students are coping with the material and are good for people who aren’t classroom learners.
The most important thing to learn from the class is assessment skills, Wagner said. While some scenarios cover narrow but important lessons, such as heart medications, many of them are designed to sharpen the students’ diagnoses.
For one scenario, Campus spent an hour and a half with a stick in her chest and the symptoms of hypothermia while her classmates worked to save her life. They succeeded, getting her warm, packaging her “wound” and preparing her to be airlifted.
“It’s opened my eyes to how having any form of first-aid skill is important,” Campus said.