The simulation was some sort of picnic disaster. People lay draped over tables and sprawled underneath them.
Several of the injured were seemingly unconscious. One person was hanging awkwardly off a bench, complaining of back pain. Another lay on the grass, opened one eye and muttered, “I’m not breathing, and I don’t have a pulse.”
A cold wind buffeted my rain jacket as I approached the scene with a group of fellow wilderness first aid students. Even though I knew the scenario was fake, it didn’t stop me from feeling that I was in the midst of utter chaos.
Instructor Jon Tierney hovered nearby, observing how the group split up and tended to our pretend patients. An outdoor educator and paramedic for over 25 years, Tierney has extensive experience in backcountry medicine, and in Maine’s outdoor community, his reputation of being a great teacher precedes him.
I was thrilled when I secured a spot in one of his courses.
The two-day wilderness first aid course was hosted by Mahoosuc Guide Service. At their scenic lodge, nestled in the mountains of western Maine, I joined students from all walks of life to learn how to respond to a myriad of medical emergencies outdoors. We covered everything from asthma attacks and allergic reactions to broken legs and traumatic brain injuries.
For someone like me who has zero experience in the medical field, it was a lot to take in.
In preparation, I studied material on the Wilderness Medical Associates International website beforehand. Still, I was nervous I’d be far behind my fellow students, many of whom were recertifying, which means they’d already taken the course at least once before.
I’ve long been interested in taking a wilderness first aid course, but it was my quest to become a registered Maine Guide that gave me that final push to pursue the certification. It’s a requirement for all prospective Maine Guides.
But even if you aren’t looking to become a Maine Guide, knowing wilderness first aid can increase your safety outdoors, especially if you’re traveling with other people. One of my fellow students drove to the course from her home in Boston so she could contribute to the safety of her son’s Boy Scout trips.
Wilderness first aid is different from typical first aid because it takes into account the added challenge of being in a remote wilderness setting. When treating someone in the wilderness, you have to take into consideration any environmental dangers such as inclement weather. And in many cases, additional help — such as an ambulance or hospital — may be several hours, if not days, away.
It’s easy to become overwhelmed by all the medical issues that could crop up in the outdoors. There’s a reason that people go to school for years to become medical professionals. There’s so much to learn. But when it comes to wilderness first aid, I realized that the goal isn’t necessarily to cure or heal a person. It’s often just about stabilizing the patient and making them as comfortable as possible until they can receive more advanced treatment.
And believe me, there’s a lot that goes into doing just that little.
The course was a combination of classroom work and hands-on learning. We practiced CPR on dummies and splinted the arms and legs of our fellow students. We fashioned tourniquets out of materials that can be found in a backpack, boat or campsite. And we practiced cleaning and bandaging open, dirty wounds using raw chicken breasts.
We also acted out medical emergencies, such as the mysterious picnic disaster. We took turns role-playing as patients, which I was actually a little nervous about, since I’m no actor. But it was kind of exciting to smear red face paint on my hands and pretend I’d been burned and concussed in a four-wheeling accident.
One of the big lessons I took away from the course is the importance of being able to identify serious, life-threatening issues. For example, a severe asthma attack or allergic reaction can be fatal. Hypothermia that’s developed slowly over the course of several hours can also lead to death, and it’s a condition that’s easy to miss.
The course crammed a lot of information into two days. But thanks to Tierney’s engaging teaching methods, a lot of it is now etched in my memory. Between book learning and demonstrations, he told stories about some of the many rescue missions he’s led. There’s no better way to learn than through a good story.
A lot of it came down to understanding how the body works and what it needs. We focused on the three critical body systems: circulatory, respiratory and nervous. Basically, if something goes wrong with one of those, you better fix it.
It’s empowering, gaining knowledge that might allow you to help yourself or others. In that way, learning about wilderness first aid is similar to learning how to read a map or steer a canoe. It’s just another skill that can boost your safety and confidence when exploring the outdoors.