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Wilderness Medicine group teaches students to provide medical care with limited resources

Nov 20, 2023

Amanda Thayer demonstrates a knot used to stabilize a leg injury with existing materials during wilderness medicine training in IU's ... Amanda Thayer demonstrates a knot used to stabilize a leg injury with existing materials during wilderness medicine training in IU's Research and Teaching Preserve at IU Bloomington on Oct. 28, 2023. Photo by Chris Meyer, Indiana University

A jovial gathering of students on a crisp Saturday in late October at Griffy Woods turned serious with a rash of broken arms and legs. Amanda Thayer was among those who had to quickly figure out how to treat the injuries.

Fortunately, it was a training exercise for Indiana University medical students who are involved with the Wilderness Medicine Student Interest Group, offered through the IU School of Medicine.

The event at IU’s Research and Training Preserve taught the students how to think creatively and provide care with limited resources. Thayer said she learned to make an arm splint out of the backpack she had brought with her that morning.

“Wilderness Medicine is a great group to be involved in to learn how to provide medical care in austere environments, or simply when you don’t have the standard technology and tools available to you at a hospital or clinic,” said Thayer, a third-year medical student.

Wilderness Medicine is one of dozens of School of Medicine student-interest groups, which are registered organizations founded and led by students. After finding out about a previously active Wilderness Medicine Student Interest Group at the IU School of Medicine, Oliver Hobson “resuscitated” the organization in the winter of 2022 because of his love of the outdoors and belief in the benefits of wilderness medical training through experiential education.

“One of the best ways to learn is to be put in a scenario where you are uncomfortable and have to figure it out,” said Hobson, a second-year medical student and the group’s president. “These kinds of experiences prepare people for what to do, especially for people who are future doctors.”

Hobson received wilderness first-responder and wilderness EMT training when he was an undergraduate at IU Bloomington and worked as a guide for IU Outdoor Adventures — which offers wilderness first aid and first-responder academic courses — taking people on camping, backpacking and canoe trips. Wilderness first-responder training teaches people to be creative and efficient with limited resources, and how to provide care when a hospital might take a couple of days to reach. It covers a range of treatments, from minor injuries like muscle strains to more traumatic breaks and dislocations.

Wilderness Medicine Student Interest Group

The training also stresses situational awareness and preparedness. The skills learned are practical and applicable whether one goes into emergency medicine or another specialty, Hobson said.

The Wilderness Medicine group has about 180 members ranging from first- to fourth-year medical students, and with participants from all nine of IU’s medical campuses, Hobson said.

“Oliver and the leadership around him have done a great job recruiting students from varied backgrounds and geographically,” said Dr. Drew Watters, the group’s faculty adviser, an emergency medicine doctor with Indiana University Health and an adjunct clinical associate professor of emergency medicine with the IU School of Medicine.

Watters, a fellow with the Wilderness Medical Society, has helped the group for about two years and said his role is to be a resource as the group sets goals and plans events.

The group’s periodic outings and training exercises put the students in environments that might not be within their comfort zone. But they are safe spaces to fail and learn because of the opportunity for subsequent reflection and improvement, Hobson said.

The training at Griffy Lake was the third of the fall semester. An advanced wilderness life support training at the Indianapolis campus was the first, and an outing at Buckner Cave south of Bloomington was the second. Thayer said the caving outing was her first time in a cave.

“It was an awesome experience,” she said.

Thayer had previous wilderness first-responder training through a course she took one summer at Colorado University Boulder. After graduating from IU Bloomington, she spent one year working in disaster relief and recovery through the American Red Cross, helping people affected by wildfires, hurricanes and floods. She sees similarities to the experiences the Wilderness Medicine group is offering and said she’s enjoying being part of the group.

“I love it,” she said.


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Kirk Johannesen

Communications Consultant, Strategic Communications

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