Students at the UTMB who like outdoor adventure are finding a way to mix business with pleasure in the nascent field of wilderness medicine.
Interest in the field has helped revive the campus’ once-dormant chapter of the Wilderness Medicine Society. About 35 students have joined, monthly lectures began in January, and instructional outings are in the works.
Wilderness medicine has special appeal for outdoors enthusiasts. A subspecialty of emergency medicine, it deals with treating injuries and illnesses in the wild. Chapter members include hikers, rafters, rock climbers and snowboarders. The membership is a 50-50 mix of medical and physician-assistant students, along with a few nursing students.
“The organization gives people a way to combine a passion of theirs with their own chosen profession,” said the chapter president, Adam Canion, a medical student and camping enthusiast.
Wilderness medicine is not part of the formal curriculum and healthcare professionals see value in the chapter’s specialized training and the enthusiasm it generates. “Any subject that excites a student’s interest is a huge plus in medical school,” said Dr. Anil Menon, a UTMB aerospace-medicine fellow and chapter adviser and mentor. UTMB, for its part, encourages student organizations and supports dozens of registered campus groups.
As for the wilderness group, members express a desire to be self-reliant and able to provide aid in remote locales. "There's something intrinsically gratifying in learning how to handle medical situations without the 'bells and whistles' that physicians rely on so heavily today,” said Cara Garcia, a second-year medical student. A chapter member, she also is a certified emergency medical technician and is pursuing designation as a Fellow of the Academy of Wilderness Medicine.
“I hope to learn skills that help me serve people who civilized medicine can't reach and also allow me to explore more of the world,” said another member, Clay Golightly, a physician-assistant student. “Plus it’s just plain fun."
The chapter is planning a camp-out to sharpen members’ skills, and outings with emergency organizations. Its first monthly lecture dealt with cave rescues. The next was about a group of wounded veterans who scaled Mt. McKinley after rehabilitation.
Topics in wilderness medicine are eclectic and embrace medical science, natural science, emergency medicine and Boy Scout savvy. Students say a key goal is to improve their senses of touch, smell, sight and sound as tools in diagnosis.
“This makes sense because in a wilderness situation, you will be alone, without supplies or instruments, and with a patient who is hours away from an emergency room in many cases. You will need to know what to do,” said Dr. Bruce Niebuhr, associate professor of physician assistant studies. A hiking and backpacking enthusiast, Dr. Niebuhr said he welcomed the chance to join the chapter. He is preparing to take a nationally-recognized wilderness first-aid course in May.
Adventures in wilderness medicine can take place almost anywhere off the beaten path. There are exotic locales. Dr. Menon, for example, served as an emergency physician at Mt. Everest, and dealt with hypoxia cases and some prominent patients. But even domestic settings produce extraordinary situations. Canion, for example, helped a fisherman in rural East Texas who had been impaled by a catfish.
On a summer rotation last year, Canion was observing at a medical clinic in Chandler, a town of 2,700 people west of Tyler. He described the fisherman’s case: “He and his buddy at the lake got into an argument, I think, so his friend threw a catfish he had caught at him. Well somehow a spike or fin on the fish got stuck in his arm. His friend got him to the clinic, and they eventually had to do minor surgery to remove the catfish.”
Interest in the chapter seemed to drop off at UTMB until this year’s incoming classes arrived, said Dr. Menon, who helped start the group in 2010.
Dr. Menon said his affiliation with UTMB and wilderness medicine has given him many opportunities to serve and learn. He delivered care to earthquake victims in Haiti in 2010, and has served at the Texas Motor Speedway and Indianapolis 500. Dr. Menon dashed into service rendering aid at the Reno (Nev.) Air Races disaster in September 2011. He was at the air show as a UTMB resident.
Dr. Menon himself completed three years of training under Stanford professor Dr. Paul Auerbach, credited as the founder of wilderness medicine. Dr. Auerbach, who wrote the defining textbook Wilderness Medicine in 1983, was a guest of UTMB last year and spoke at Clear Lake.