This past weekend, I attended a Wilderness First Aid course and I’m extremely happy that I did. My concern was that while hiking the Appalachian Trail with a large group of people, I might encounter an injury situation where I didn’t know how to respond and/or help. My expectation of the course was that I would learn about how to deal with medical emergencies in the backcountry, and it really met my expectations.
Wilderness First Aid is defined as first aid administered where it may take an hour or longer to get the injured person to definitive medical care. That scenario certainly applies to the Appalachian Trail, but it also applies to environments not typically associated with “wilderness,” such as off-shore boating or urban disaster response. In circumstances where you cannot simply call for an ambulance, there are some subtle, but important, differences in the first aid that is administered to the injured, such as long-term wound care and the reduction of dislocations.
During this 16-hour course, the main thing that I learned was the importance of assessment. After all, you can’t render proper first aid if you don’t know the nature of the problem. First, you size-up the scene to determine the possible cause of the victim’s injury, but, more importantly, to determine if the scene is safe. You are of no use if in the process of rendering aid, you become injured yourself. Once you deem it is safe to proceed, you perform a primary assessment where you determine whether the victim is responsive or not, and address any life-threatening conditions needing urgent care such as breathing problems and severe bleeding. Depending upon the results of the primary assessment, you make take a medical history, check vital signs and perform a physical exam, and then reassess them later to identify any changes in the victim’s condition since the initial assessment.
Depending on the findings of the assessment, first aid is rendered as appropriate. Throughout the course, we reviewed the appropriate first aid for everything from the care of bleeding, wounds, and burns, through circulatory, respiratory, neurologic, abdominal, and diabetic emergencies. Also covered, which was of special interest to me personally, was how to care for allergic reactions (especially poisonous plants), heat exhaustion/stroke, hypothermia, and insect and animal bites.
Medical professionals spend their entire lives learning proper treatment for illness and injury, but the Wilderness First Aid course (CPR/AED training is a course prerequisite) provides a broad overview of how to respond to a medical emergency when no definitive medical treatment is available. I sincerely hope that (a) I never have to use anything that I learned in this course, and (b) everyone else hiking the Appalachian Trail with me has had the same training. But if the situation arises, I’m confident that I can render appropriate aid and perhaps even save a life. I highly recommend the Wilderness First Aid course to everyone.