You do not always get to play the part of the rescuer in life. At least, not in my wilderness first aid class. You don’t always get to be in charge and call the shots. You don’t always get to be the hero. And that’s a good thing. Because sometimes you learn more by being the patient. From watching your rescuers make mistakes, make assumptions, and go to pieces over you.
D and I took a 16-hour wilderness training class at UCSF last month to learn how to take care of ourselves and others when we go play out in the woods. In modern day healthcare, there is a concept known as “the golden hour.” In urban environments, patients are transported to emergency facilities where medical professionals, machines, and medicines abound. In the wilderness, help is not just a phone call away. It may be a canoe ride, a 3,000 foot descent, a 15 mile hike, or a low tide away. The golden hour is the window of time that determines whether a trauma patient will be treated at a hospital by physicians, or will be at the mercy of the people with them, and in some cases, themselves.
Think of the moments on an airplane before takeoff when the flight attendants begin their spiel about emergency procedures. You know the talk, it’s given as you’re flipping through the trashy $9 magazine you splurged on at the gate and mentions oxygen masks falling from the ceiling. No matter which airline you fly, the message includes the same instruction: put your mask on first. It reinforces the concept that you need to take care of yourself so that you can take care of others.
That is step one of wilderness first aid.
The first class I was sold when the instructor leading us through the gritty world of wilderness medicine was Bobby – a woman my mom’s age dressed in hiking boots and flannel. She began, “We’re all here to try things. To make mistakes. And to learn from them. If you can get yourself into a calm place, you can make good decisions.”
I jotted that in my notebook and thought, I like her already.
Now, I won’t recap each of the four classes. In part, because some of you are bored already. But also because I spent much of the early classes feeling awkward. I felt weird about kneeling on the floor, having a stranger’s temples pressed between my knees and repeating, ‘don’t move.” I felt odd splinting my fellow classmates, pushing on the purple makeup dotting their arms, asking ‘Does it hurt?” I found the only way I improved was by getting over myself and my discomfort and just playing along. And most importantly, separating from D so I could learn things for myself.
Over the course I learned that the key to helping another person is staying calm and protecting yourself with gloves or whatever barriers you can improvise. It is asking questions and reading between all they do not say. It is looking beyond what is in front of you, beyond the superficial wounds, and feeling for a problem unseen. It is getting to the skin, finding the source, and going from there.
It is checking your surroundings for something more to determine what went wrong. Asking yourself, how did this happen, and could it have been prevented? It is not letting something small grow into something you can’t handle. Not letting wounds fester, but addressing the problem when it arises. Doing things right the first time. And not giving up when you don’t.
Helping someone is applying pressure. Pushing hard when the bleeding is heavy. And harder when it doesn’t stop. It is waiting for what you know will happen, trusting yourself, not rushing their healing. It is knowing what your resources are and when you have nothing left to give.
It is making decisions based on what is best for you and the others in your group. Forcing yourself to step back and acknowledge when you have done all you can for someone. It is realizing some things are out of your hands. That you are not out of your head, or your heart for stopping. And knowing that sometimes, there is nothing left to do but wait.
“And then, pray for a miracle,” Bobby says.