Irish doctor Orla Kenny gives Adventure Medic her account of the recent Expedition and Wilderness Medicine course in Australia’s Blue Mountains. The aim of the course is to give both aspiring and experienced expedition doctors, nurses and paramedics the practical knowledge and skills to be a well-prepared member of an expedition medical team.
On a misty Monday morning, 24th March, the inaugural Australian Expedition and Wilderness Medicine course kicked off in Jemby Rinjah Eco Lodge, just outside Sydney. The lodge is located in the heart of the Blue Mountains and is comprised of rustic wooden cabins linked to central lounge, dining and conference rooms. Surrounded by quiet bush trails that lead to secluded vantage points offering sweeping mountain views, Jemby Rinjah is the perfect spot for hosting a wilderness medicine course. Jamie Morton, Company Director of Expedition and Wilderness Medicine Australia, and Dr. Andrew Peacock, Clinical Director, got things rolling with a talk outlining the aims of the course and the itinerary for the next four days.
There was a wide range of topics to be covered and, in general, lectures were to take place in the mornings and practical sessions in the afternoons. We were also introduced to the teaching faculty and the organisers – Dr. Domhnall Brannigan, Dr. Louise McDonnell, Lucas Trihey, Zac Zaharias and Sabina Allemann, who had a vast amount of experience in hiking, climbing and mountaineering and also as expedition doctors and leaders. Sitting around the conference room, there were 25-30 course participants. A show of hands revealed the vast majority of us to be doctors, with varying degrees of experience, ranging from junior doctors to GPs to A&E consultants. There was a number of medical students, trekking guides and expedition leaders. With people from Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and the UK, we were a pretty diverse group but everyone had an enthusiasm for the outdoors and an interest in adventure. The atmosphere was friendly and open from the outset.
Over the next few days, the lecture series touched on topics including medical assessment of participants prior to an expedition, the management of pre-existing medical conditions, hypothermia, frostbite, altitude medicine and medicine in hot, desert climates. The content was weighted towards mountain medicine, trekking and hiking but many of the topics and skills would be applicable to other environments. There were also talks on the use of social media in expedition medicine and the legal aspects of working as an expedition doctor. While it was impossible for speakers to impart all the necessary information on such broad subjects in one-hour lectures, the major points were always covered, giving a comprehensive overview of each topic. Most importantly, the talks sparked interesting discussions, both during the lectures themselves and afterwards, with coffee breaks giving people ample time to share their opinions and experiences on different subjects while stocking up on biscuits. Afternoons were filled with practical sessions, mainly outdoors. These covered fracture management, navigation in the wilderness, group dynamics, medical kit preparation, communication strategies and improvised shelter and carry techniques, amongst other things. We were divided into smaller groups of 7-8 for these sessions. Again, while there wasn’t time in a four-day course to cover each topic in depth, an excellent introduction to basic skills was provided. These afternoons were great fun, led by experienced leaders familiar with the local terrain and gave everyone the opportunity to settle in and get to know each other. There’s no standing on ceremony when you’re whacking through the bush with a compass in the rain, being carried around on someone’s back in a makeshift harness or jostling someone around on a stretcher you’ve improvised from backpacks and poles.
The activities wrapped up at around 5.30pm giving people a chance to take it easy before dinner. At this point, a few brave souls would venture out for a run on one of the nearby trails, however there were those of us who found a beer in front of the fire a slightly more appealing way to unwind! Dinners were relaxed and an occasion to chat with other participants and Andrew, Domhnall, Zac, Lucas and Sabina. It seems that one of the benefits of any wilderness medicine course is the opportunity it provides to talk to people who have combined their work in medicine with their passion for the outdoors and this course was no exception. From Everest summits to Antarctic excursions, there was certainly no shortage of interesting conversation.
One of my favourite parts of the course was the evening lecture series. Every evening after dinner, a guest speaker gave a talk about their experience of expeditions, exploring and adventure activities. On the first evening Greg Mortimer, who was one of the first two Australians to summit Mt. Everest without oxygen, gave a talk on his trip to the Antarctic to summit Mt. Minto. The following evening Dr. Glenn Singleman spoke of his experience as an expedition doctor and adventurer, including his world record BASE jump and wing suit achievements. On the third night, Adrian Lang spoke about his incredible journey paragliding over the Karakorum Mountains in Pakistan. It was a phenomenal lecture series, with speakers of the highest caliber, and there was a general consensus that it was a really special aspect of the course.
The course culminated in a three-hour search and rescue exercise on Thursday morning in the bush area around the lodge. Designed to allow us to put into practice the theory and skills acquired over the duration of the course, it was a challenging task. It was a wet, cold day and the terrain was steep and muddy –it really drove home the difficulties of working in a tough outdoor environment. However, after a fairly haphazard start, we did manage to pull it together and locate and rescue our 3 “patients”! Overall, this was a fantastic course taught by a very knowledgeable and passionate faculty. Whilst it was ideally suited as an introduction to expedition medicine for those new to the field, it also offered an opportunity for those with more experience the chance to sharpen up existing skills. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.
Cost / AUS $1,975 (the cost of getting to Australia from Ireland/UK is obviously fairly hefty but it’s great for people who are either working or travelling in that part of the world!)
Accreditations / RACGP – Accredited for 40 category 1 points. ACRRM – This activity is accredited by the ACRRM for 30 PRPD + 30 PRPD EM MOPS Points. WMS – The course is accredited and can lead to a FAWM fellowship. To gain credit you will need to enroll with the WMS.
Food and Accommodation / All meals were provided, the food was excellent and all dietary needs were catered for. It is advisable to bring some snacks though, as you are quite a distance from the nearest shop. Each cabin has four bedrooms with a communal living area. Cabins are comfortable and spacious, with 3 people per room.
Next course / In the Blue Mountains from 27-30th October 2014. All details can be found on the EWM Australia website.