A cool mist permeates the forest, dripping from the trees onto the people gathered below. One of them has slipped on the moss-covered rocks and now lies on the ground, holding his ankle, in obvious pain. One of the hikers takes out his cell phone to call for help. There is no signal….
This is the type of scenario every outdoors person fears, and it’s one of the reasons that Ozarks’ Director of Outdoor and Environmental Experiences Jamie Lewis Hedges and three students traveled to Portland, Ore., to attend a 10-day Wilderness First Responder course taught by the Wilderness Medicine Institute of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS).
The training will allow Hedges and his three student coordinators – Lauren Ray, Kirk Ross, and Ben Adkins – to respond to medical emergency situations during trips. They have been trained to stabilize victims in the field, and when necessary prepare them for evacuation in scenarios where the victim is more than an hour from the nearest medical facilities.
Kirk Ross, Ben Adkins, Jamie Lewis Hedges, and Lauren Ray recently attended a Wilderness First Responder training session at the National Outdoor Leadership School, near Portland, Oregon.
“From my own background in outdoor recreation, I knew I wanted a standard of training for my student coordinators which included wilderness first responder,” Hedges said. “Wilderness first responder is a better level of training than wilderness first aid, and I wanted to get the higher standard for the program here since we have our vision set high.” Hedges believes that the training will help him and his outdoors staff think about risk management and how to better manage events to minimize risks.
For Lauren Ray, the training was intense and realistic. “During the ten days of the course, we were busy from at least 8 to 5 every day,” she said. “And on two nights we had sessions that finished at 9:30. On one of those days, we attended an extra lecture, but on the other they held an exercise where we went out into the woods at night in darkness, split into groups, and were instructed to walk a certain direction off trail and go find a victim.”
Ray said the simulated victims were made up with fake bruising, fake blood, and fake fractures. “We had to use the full patient assessment system we learned in the course to diagnose the problem and fix it,” she said. “Kirk was in the same group with me. Our victim had a broken femur. That’s the worst break you can have, because the femur runs alongside a main artery, and the fragmented bone can cut the artery. Using only the materials we’d normally have in a backpack on a normal hike, we made a splint to immobilize his leg. One of the main things we learned in the course was how to do makeshift medicine.”
Hedges said, “This ‘test’ started at 7 pm, when it was just getting dark enough that we needed headlamps to see. It was cool, but not cold when it began, but the temperature dropped steadily as the night progressed. The area we were in ran along the Willamette River, flat mostly, though from where I was the ground fell away sharply into the river waters. We were led ¼ mile into the woods and told to search for our ‘victim.’ We found him there at the riverside. We had no radio, so we had to stabilize him and prepare to stay the night until we could evacuate. It wasn’t too dangerous, but it was a realistic challenge for handling an emergency scenario.”
The training addressed more than just injury response. For Kirk Ross, the more interesting parts of the training included sections on lightning safety – “Lightning is just crazy,” he said. “They tell you not to stand under trees, but also not to be out in the open where you’re the tallest object. You’d think going into a cave would be safe, but lightning has been known to zap right through the cave with people in it. And rubber soles on your shoes don’t help. You’d have to have soles 30 feet thick to do any good." With no other options, Ross said, you have to just go into the forest and hope the lightning doesn’t hit the tree you’re standing under.
Ross said the team also learned some common misconceptions concerning snakebite. “The last thing you’d want to do would be cut open the snakebite and suck out the venom,” he said. “When a snake bites you, the venom spreads instantly. They tell you to apply a tourniquet to the wound to keep the poison from spreading. But if you do that, the poison will stay in one area and destroy all that tissue. You could lose the limb. Our training was full of information like that.”
All three of the students who attended the training returned to Ozarks with a positivie attitude about their experience and new confidence in their medical skills. Ben Adkins said, “The training was first rate and professional. It will make Outbackers outings a lot safer. Plus we got to see Portland, which is a wonderful place!”
The WFR training will be put to use right away…one of the newly trained students will accompany Prof. Brett Stone’s Physical Education class on an upcoming mountain biking trip. Ross explained that during student trips, he and the other coordinators will in essence be making a pact with those students in their care. “It’s called ‘duty to act,’” he said. “We’re saying, ‘We’re all going into this situation where you may not know exactly what’s going on, but where we have had this training to help you, and if the situation arises, we are obligated to do so.’”
Although the current Ozarks Outdoors’ staff is now fully trained, Hedges says when new student coordinators begin working with the program, they too will need the Wilderness First Responder training. He is now in the process of setting up Wilderness First Responder training to be taught by NOLS here at Ozarks in the fall. “We must be trained to help injured students when the group is at least one hour away from medical help,” he said, “and here in Arkansas, that’s the majority of the state. Most or all trips we take will have that in common. That training is good for us to have as working knowledge, but also for the school to help us to manage our risk.”