Students learn wilderness medicine over break

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Photo by Alexandra Schmeling .

While many students traveled with family or friends over spring break, around a dozen students from Yale College and the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies stayed in New Haven for a rigorous eight-day Wilderness First Responder course.

The course, coordinated by Yale Outdoors, offers students and locals the opportunity to earn a WFR certification — a qualification that is an important requirement for many outdoor jobs and prepares participants to handle medical emergencies in remote areas — on areas around Yale’s campus. Since its inception at Yale a decade ago, the program has seen steady interest from students and nonstudents alike.

“It’s a magnified version of how to do medicine in the backwoods,” said Emma Spence ’17, co-chair of wilderness medicine for Yale Outdoors. “You learn how to survive, understand the situation and keep someone stable.”

Spence helped coordinate the course this year, along with co-chair Aaron Troncoso ’17. The course ran from March 8 to March 16, with daily classes and practice scenarios. At the end of the eight days, participants completed a written and practical exam to earn certification.

Instructors from Stonehearth Open Learning Opportunities (SOLO), a school based in New Hampshire that specializes in wilderness medicine, came to Yale to teach the course. The cost of attending the course was subsidized for Yale students through the Yale Outdoors Alumni Fund, bringing the fee down to $495 — though non-Yale individuals paid a nonsubsidized price.

Organizers said the main goal of the course is to prepare students for medical situations in backcountry locations that are not easily accessible for medical attention and to instill the ability to make a diagnosis in a high-pressure situation. Responders are also taught to quickly assess the scene to avoid falling victim to the hazard themselves.

Once the problem is identified, participants are taught a variety of ways to utilize readily available materials to stabilize patients or treat minor injuries. One such exercise involved making a splint from gear such as handkerchiefs or jackets.

“As an EMT by training, I was fascinated by the creativity aspect,” said Alex Roth ’15, co-coordinator of Yale Outdoors who participated in a WFR course in 2013. “In wilderness medicine, using nonmedical resources in a medical way, like pulling traction on a fractured femur with a stick and shoestring, may be necessary to treat your patient.”

The structure of the course includes hands-on simulations for participants to practice skills in a realistic scenario. Complete with posed victims and occasional fake blood, these scenarios are meant to illustrate issues that could happen and teach responders to remain calm, Troncoso said.

The course utilized various locations around the Yale campus — Marsh Botanical Gardens became the site of emergency shelters, and participants conducted a mock search-and-rescue in East Rock Park.

Certification in wilderness medicine is particularly appealing to those hoping to pursue outdoor jobs, such as guide positions or park service.

But the skills taught through the course have a wider scope as well, according to both participants and coordinators. Participant and FOOT leader Peter Wyckoff ’16 said he now feels better equipped to lead his FOOT group, but also cited the course’s instruction in CPR and dealing with anaphylaxis and cardiac arrest as having practical applications even in daily life on campus.

“These skills are really useful for anyone,” Troncoso said. “It’s empowering to feel confident in offering help in situations that may arise in the wilderness.”

Yale Outdoors facilitates various forms of wilderness medicine training, including WFR courses during winter and spring break and more regular offerings of shorter Wilderness First Aid courses.

“[Yale Outdoors] wants to cultivate a love of the outdoors, but also an awareness of safety in the outdoors and knowing how to handle extreme conditions,” Spence said.

Applications to the spring break WFR program were due on Feb. 27.

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