One morning about two months ago I was sitting in a classroom at the Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center just outside State College Pennsylvania, learning basic anatomy. Later that afternoon I found myself in a snowy wood assessing injuries to a hiker who had fallen and suffered a broken leg and serious head injury. Four or five of my classmates–most in their early to mid twenties–worked feverishly together to splint and stabilize the disoriented patient, secure him in a litter and carry him out over a creek, up a hill, and back to the classroom where we’d started our day. Meanwhile, others tended to the broken and twisted limbs of the patient’s fellow hikers. Once the straps were taken off, the limbs unsplinted and the bone wax washed away, we debriefed our first multi-patient rescue.
Our patients were our classmates. The falls, the broken bones, the confusion and the evacuation were all a test, planned by John Clancy our SOLO Wilderness Medicine instructor–a heck of nice guy. At Shaver’s Creek, I was one of about 14 people taking part in a ten-day Wilderness First Responder (WFR) course. WFR is the basic certification required for most people who work as backcountry trip leaders, mountain guides, river guides, ski patrollers, and in a variety of other environments where one is responsible for the safety and overall well-being of others in a wilderness setting. It also provides a really good set of skills (both medical and leadership related) for anyone who spends a significant amount of time outdoors, or without quick access to medical aid.
Since returning from Shaver’s creek I haven’t had to splint any limbs, stabilize any spines or apply direct pressure to any arterial bleeds. But I feel better knowing that if I were put in that situation I’d know what to do. I would undoubtedly be nervous, and my dressings might not come out as perfectly as John made sure they did during my training. Nevertheless, I know enough now to do more good than harm–which I’m not sure would have been the case before I became a WFR. Most importantly, what John taught through a combination of lecture, demonstrations, conversation, hands-on practice and scenario simulations over nearly two weeks has made an indelible impression. His combination of instruction strategies–along with his flexibility in letting us find our own best ways of grasping concepts and performing procedures–made John perhaps one of the most effective teachers I’ve ever had in a technical course like this.
Most of us don’t go into the world thinking that we’ll encounter the worst case scenario. I think if we did we might not travel very far out into the world, actually. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be prepared for the things we may encounter, whether on a city street, suburban cul-de-sac, or backcountry trail. My WFR class reminded me of the importance of being present, the value of observation, the benefit of listening closely and the reward of taking responsible risks. It also reminded me what really good teaching should be like. After each eight hour day of my WFR training I walked back through the woods to the cabin in which I was staying. Tired, but charged, I noticed new things on each walk. Rather than being dazed and confused, I felt curious and observant. And maybe that’s the biggest gift of a teacher like John: he gets you to look carefully at the environment around you, gives you the confidence to act on what you see.