Matt Cheaveau / PGY3 Doctor / Queensland
Expedition Medicine Australia Ltd. organises a number of different courses throughout the year for both medics and non-medics. These vary from mainly theory-based courses to practical courses, such as the White Water Expedition Medicine course in New Zealand but they all focus on medicine in extreme environments. The course I attended was the four day Expedition and Wilderness Medicine course located in Australia’s Blue Mountains in March 2015.
The course was set in the heart of the World Heritage Blue Mountains National Park at the stunning and award-winning Jemby-Rinaj Eco Lodge near Blackheath, a two hour drive from Sydney. The site was perfect; merely metres away from glorious lookouts and natural bush trail walks offering spectacular mountain views. It was the ideal setting for hosting a wilderness medicine course and provided the perfect base for exploring the hidden gems of the Blue Mountains.
Logistics and accommodation
On signing up for the course, you are sent a welcoming email detailing all the essential information on attending and useful things to bring (i.e. a waterproof!). You were also given the option of extending your stay at a discounted rate at the Eco Lodge to explore the surrounding area and given the opportunity to sign up to a number of additional activities, such as abseiling and rock climbing, that came as an additional price.
Email addresses of the delegates were shared prior to the start of the course to organise lift-shares and travel up to Blackheath from Sydney. This was really useful since access with public transport to Blackheath from Katoomba was limited. The course runs for four days and includes food and accommodation, although most participants arrived the evening before given the early start and went straight to the pub to meet each other.
The Jemby-Rinaj Eco Lodge came pre-booked with the course. It was tucked away in secluded unspoilt natural bush with only birdsong or the rustling of native animals to disturb you. It comprised of dormitory-style accommodation in eco friendly timber lodges with shared amenities (including naturally composting toilets). The cabins were clean and rustic, and linked to the main lounge, dining room, and conference centre where most of the lectures took place. An outside bonfire discovered on the last night was an unexpected highlight.
The course was open to all healthcare professionals with the aim to provide the practical knowledge and skills to be a well-prepared member of an expedition medical team. No prior experience of expeditions was needed. There were thirty delegates in total, the majority of which were medics from varying backgrounds and levels of experience but also paramedics and nurses. Most were able to get some funding from their hospital and health service. On completion of the course, it was also possible to gain accreditation points to the RACGP, ACRRM, WMS and other associated colleges.
The faculty included Jamie Morton (Company Director), Dr. Andrew Peacock (Medical Director), Dr. Domhnall Brannigan, Lucas Trihey, Dr. Jim Duff, Zac Zaharias, Dr. Louise McDonnell and Dr Renee Farrar. It was a highly qualified faculty with experience in hiking, climbing and mountaineering as well as expedition doctors and leaders.
The course certainly did not disappoint. The four day programme offered a good mixture of lectures, workshops and practical sessions. They day typically started with some cringeworthy but enjoyable ice breakers. Lectures were delivered in the mornings in one hour slots on a number of expedition medicine topics from hot and cold weather environments, altitude medicine and hypothermia, to team dynamics and communication strategies. There were also talks on pre-expedition planning including kit lists, doctor self-care and legal considerations to name but a few. The talks were on the whole well-prepared and salient to wilderness and expedition medicine. Refreshments were provided between talks and provided ample time to get to know the other delegates over shared interests.
After a hearty lunch, participants split up into three small-groups to rotate through a number of workshops. These were inside and outside practical sessions covering a range of different topics. We learnt how to communicate using radio systems, construct traction and splints for patients with fractures, and test out a portable altitude chamber device, amongst other things.
On the afternoon of day two we experienced how unpredictable the weather was in the Blue Mountains, battling the elements near Evans lookout, practicing rope work, navigation skills and improvised carrying techniques. What’s not to love navigating through thick bush, or being paraded around on a makeshift stretcher built from sticks in the pouring rain! These were fun, hands-on sessions led by experienced faculty, and provided an excellent introduction to basic wilderness medicine skills as well as team bonding opportunities.
The evening was spent warming up by the fire, having dinner and preparing for the evening talk, where a guest speaker would share their own experiences on personal expeditions. Adrian Laing started with his incredible adventure paragliding over the Karakorum Mountains in Pakistan. Then Paul Pritchard, one of the leading British climbers and mountaineers of the 1980s and 1990s, recalled his life-changing accident that left him hemiplegic while climbing the Totem Pole in Tasmania. It was a moving and insightful firsthand account of a battered climber defying disability and refusing to turn his back on the mountains. It was a truly inspirational talk and a real highlight of the week.
The course culminated in a simulated Nepalese Himalayan search and rescue field exercise on the fourth morning around the local area. We had to put all the theory and skills learnt throughout the course into practice to locate, treat and expedite three missing climbers who endangered by ‘incoming storms’. This was an exciting and challenging scenario which was excellently designed and operated by the faculty. It made me appreciate just how much I had learnt over the four days and the problems working in extreme environments with limited resources.
It was a packed timetable that left little time to explore the surrounding areas, although many ventured out for sunrise (highly recommended) or an early morning run. By the end of the week, we were all buzzing with excitement and ideas of our own trips. We stayed an extra day to walk in to the wilderness which was great (but remember the accommodation is self-catering outside of the course dates).
Cost / $1975 including food and accommodation for the duration of the course. Expensive but definitely worth the money.
Food and drink / Refreshments provided. Food was of a high standard and catered for all diets. There is a bar serving alcohol.
Accreditations / RACGP, ACRRM and WMS
The course was excellent. I learnt many transferable skills applicable to medical situations inside or outside of the healthcare setting including leadership and teamworking skills. The experienced faculty were fun, approachable and passionate about the wilderness and it was nice to meet and socialise with like-minded individuals. I now feel confident applying as a medic for expeditions with ideas how to get involved and would certainly recommend it to others considering this in the future.