Teachers learn wilderness medicine skills


Eric Gietzen, English teacher, and Eric Mathews, science teacher, both leaders of the Watershed Wisdom program, recently attended a NOLS Wilderness First Responder Course in Santa Cruz, CA. The 10-day course provided them with medical response skills just below those of an EMT. Gietzen and Mathews were joined by 28 classmates and two instructors, and hope that the knowledge they bring back will help to expand the Watershed Wisdom program.

“We’ve been asked for several years now to think about how we would expand the program,” Gietzen said. “Sometimes when people think about expanding a program they think about scaling up in numbers of students. There are other ways, though, to scale up a program like Watershed.”

According to Gietzen, the ultimate goal is for SHS to have a satellite location where students could go for a year of education with what he calls “Watershed Experiences.” In the first semester, students would learn Watershed curriculum, and in the second semester, students from Atwater and Lake Bluff would be brought to the site, completing educational programs that the high school students develop.

“One of the great things about Watershed is that we have this opportunity to present a really rich experience to students, in a high ratio of teacher to student contact. This seems to be one of the things that helps Watershed really work well, and we wouldn’t want to make that more diffuse; we would want to intensify it, but also expose the whole district to the Watershed curriculum,” Gietzen said.

Gietzen believes the creation of the satellite school would accomplish this. Gietzen and Mathew’s course was paid for from the Watershed Wisdom Fund, replenished solely by donations of Watershed alumni and parents, completely independent of SEED.

(courtesy of Eric Gietzen) Eric Mathews, science teacher, and Eric Gietzen, English teacher, participate in a NOLS course. The duo plans to apply the lessons learned here to Watershed Wisdom.

The course followed the NOLS Wilderness Medicine textbook, which broke up the material into three major categories: traumatic injuries (anything involving a physical injury, i.e. broken bones), environmental injuries (heatstroke, hypothermia, animal bites) and medical issues (anything dealing with an internal organ system).

A normal day began before 8:00 A.M. with a classroom session usually about either the patient assessment system, or with physiological information about the human body. The patient assessment system, a framework of medical diagnosis, was a major focus in the course.

“Each time you approach a patient in the wilderness, you [need to] have a system for assessing that individual thoroughly, accurately and quickly, and making a confident decision about what the problem is and how best to treat it,” Mathews said.

The attendees were split up into three groups, and several students acted as victims, creating stories of their injuries and reacting to other students who were assessing and treating them.

Molly Eder, senior, took the course in March of 2015 in Boulder, CO, and also appreciated the division of groups.

“I thought it was pretty helpful to be with a lot of people because you’re always switching out. Practicals are different because you’re only working with one or two other people, and so you’re always rotating with them to see different perspectives, and sometimes people would pick up on things you hadn’t noticed, which was nice,” Eder said.

Besides having to deal with an injured patient, students often had to factor in how far away help would be.

“We talked a lot about how different scenarios would require different action,” Gietzen said. “Usually they assumed we had a satellite phone, and we could call for help. They might say, ‘Help is two hours away, and the trailhead is 20 miles away; what are you going to do?’ So you’d have to evaluate the patient, factor in where we were, weather conditions and then make our decisions.”

The class usually ended around 5:00 P.M. each evening; however, on several nights, students received a dinner break and were then expected to come back for another session afterward.

Additionally, students received reading assignments from the textbook each day, and were expected to come to class each morning with a basic understanding of the topic for that day.

Although there was a low student to teacher ratio, Gietzen and Mathews both felt they had contact with each of the attendees every day.

“We felt like we really knew the instructors really well by the time we were done with the course. They did an excellent job of being present while we were assessing; they did a really good job of coaching us on being victims too, because that’s another way of understanding the situation,” Gietzen said.

Students were expected to compound information as they received it, building on information they had learned in previous lessons.

“As we got on, after the fifth or sixth day, they would give us scenarios that we hadn’t learned about yet. So they would give us somebody who was having a diabetic seizure, and we hadn’t learned about diabetic seizures yet, but we had to apply the system to that and then try and come up with a treatment protocol for something we didn’t exactly know about,” Mathews said.

Gietzen and Mathews both hope that this information can also be given to students in Watershed. “We’ve talked about using this as an opportunity to challenge students so that they can become more self-sufficient in the field, and even if they don’t become experts, they will become more aware of risk in the outdoors and more likely to work collaboratively to solve challenges in the outdoors,” Mathews said.

According to Mathews, one of the major focuses of the course was figuring out how to work together with people to solve a problem when the patient cannot just be taken indoors or when an ambulance cannot be called immediately. Mathews and Gietzen both feel the course was a good experience.

“[It was] super challenging, one of the more challenging things I’ve done in a long time, but at the end of the day, I feel like I learned so much, and now I’m even more prepared for leading things outdoors than I was before, which is saying something, because I felt pretty prepared in the past,” Mathews said.

Eder echoed the positive reviews of the course.  “I have a lot more self awareness of injuries that could happen without you noticing, and [I’m better at] risk management,” Eder said.

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