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Wilderness Training Helps Grad Students Prepare for Fieldwork Emergencies

November 8, 2018
By Hanna Grimm
Communications Intern

Jacqueline Gerson
Jacqueline Gerson
(Photo courtesy of Gerson)

When she was a master's student, Jacqueline Gerson broke her leg while doing fieldwork on a solo trip. Fortunately, she had been certified as a wilderness first responder, so she had the training to stay calm, assess the situation and determine the best course of action to get medical help.

Understanding the thought process for a triage situation helps build confidence through the knowledge of how to handle yourself, said Gerson, now a third-year ecology Ph.D. student at Duke. “I thought that having those skills for anyone leading a team into the fieldwork or even going by themselves would be valuable,” she said.

Gerson’s experience inspired her to start a wilderness-training program for her fellow graduate students at Duke. The Wilderness First Responder course is a seven-day intensive course that trains participants to deal with medical emergencies that arise during fieldwork located more than two hours away from a medical facility.

“The purpose of the training was to give graduate students who often do field work and lead teams of researchers in places that are too far to get medical help the skillset to handle medical emergencies,” Gerson said.

Offered for the first time in spring 2018, the course taught a group of 10 Duke graduate students basic medical training and triage tactics that could be used in a potential crisis. The course was completed through Nantahala Outdoor Center, a white-water rafting group out of western North Carolina.

“It’s kind of like taking a CPR course from the Red Cross, but instead of going to the Red Cross we hired an instructor from the organization, and he came here and taught the course to those in the Duke community,” said Emily Ury, a third-year Ph.D. student in ecology who participated in the course.

The course required 60 hours for certification and had to be completed over spring break, Ury said.

“We were trying to do it in only seven days, so the days felt really long,” she said. “The fact that it was being taught to purely graduate students made it a really unique experience because we were all putting our schoolwork on hold to take this course.”

According to Ury, the instructor was used to teaching this course to people who primarily work in outdoor education, but teaching a bunch of “nerdy” scientists led to in-depth discussions about current medical practices, budding research, and alternative methods.

Emily Ury wrapped up in a hypothermia burrito
Ecology Ph.D. student Emily Ury, a participant at
the spring 2018 wilderness training, is wrapped up
in a "hypothermia burrito"—a sleeping bag and
several tarps put together to keep a person warm.
(Photo courtesy of Ury)

“We got really nerdy because I think eight-tenths of us were doing a Ph.D in biology and a lot of the course is about practical first-aid skills like how to splint a broken ankle or how to bandage a burn,” Ury said. “But then a lot of it is decision-making processes that you need to be familiar with, like how to look for warning signs and make decisions from there.”

The program also contained a night-time portion where students went into Duke Forest and participated in a simulation where they had to triage a staged emergency and make the appropriate decision that led their classmates to safety, Gerson said.

“Everyone was really looking for exposure to these kinds of experiences,” Ury said. “These are skills you really want to have in your back pocket for when you are going to remote areas away from traditional medical care.”

Gerson received financial support from Duke to organize the course, which was offered at a cost of about $100 per student.

“With support from The Graduate School and some departmental funding, we were able to offer the course at an affordable price for students where otherwise it would have been about $1,000 to take it elsewhere,” she said.

Students who participated in the course have said they now feel a lot more comfortable taking undergraduates or lab techs into the field because they understand the line of thinking they should work through should an emergency arise, Gerson said.

“Personally, I think anyone who is doing research in a remote location should do it,” she said. “The first time I had this training I was an undergraduate leading pre-orientation programs for students. And if you require it for a backpacking trip where you may only be a few miles from a trailhead or a half-hour drive, why wouldn’t you require it for somebody who is a five-hour drive from health care?”