Over the past four days, my group and I participated in a Wilderness Advanced First Aid (WAFA) course. Akshay, the director of the Hanifl Centre, explained that Aerie Backcountry Medicine (the Montana-based organization supervising our certifications) offers several levels of training: Wilderness First Aid (WFA), WAFA, Wilderness First Responder (WFR), and Wilderness Emergency Medical Technician (W-EMT). The sister program of Pitt students in Mussoorie will obtain a WFR certification; we settled with WAFA. Akshay is a W-EMT, which is extremely rare in India.
Akshay made a few celebrity appearances to teach some of his favorite topics, such as the legalities of first aid care, shock, hypothermia, CPR, and animal bites. Akshay was probably my favorite instructor—he tended to explain the biology and biochemistry underlying different emergency conditions, which engaged my academic background. However, Shantanu and Vipul did an excellent job jointly teaching the rest of the course. Shantanu was a bit more soft-spoken and Vipul more pointed, but both were effective and organized.
Essentially, the course alternated lecture and first aid simulations. After learning about a concept in the classroom, the instructors would split us into groups of three—two would be caregivers and one would be a patient. Not all of the scenarios were applications of acquired knowledge, though: some were meant to be instructive examples of the next topics. For example, after several stressful caregiver experiences, I volunteered as a patient and hoped to do nothing for once. Vipul took the volunteers on a pleasant walk up the hill, which I quickly identified as a ruse. We were then sent rushing down the hill into the middle of a lightning strike scene, complete with bloody injuries (dye and prosthetics) and panicked actors tackling us.
Some other memorable scenarios included a massive hemorrhage simulation in which I (properly) tied a pressure bandage so tightly around Anita’s shin that her foot turned purple. Let the record show that I had been the patient in the first pressure bandage example, so perhaps I was channeling my pain. We also had an interesting situation this morning when Tommy identified a monkey perched on the ledge above him, just as we had finished mummifying him tightly in a wrap for hypothermic patients. His look was priceless.
By the end of the course, I developed a solid understanding of paramount first aid principles. I can survey a scene for safety; complete a primary survey of airway, breathing, circulation, neurological deficits, and the environment; and thoroughly evaluate the gamut of physical reasons a patient may be experiencing distress. I also successfully received CPR and epipen certifications. My knowledge is far from complete and perfect, but I have a strong foundation for additional training. If I ever forget a detail or want further clarity, I can easily add to my knowledge base.
Furthermore, wilderness first aid is not only a life-saving skill; its practice and theory are highly applicable to leadership. For example, leaders frequently encounter multiple challenges at once, forcing them to prioritize. Wilderness first aid is built on prioritization and trade-offs. First, we must ensure that immediate threats to life are managed (blocked airways, chest wounds, bleeds, spinal injuries). Then, we proceed to a thorough documentation of patient status, starting with critical questions about symptom onset and severity. During the caregiving process, first aid also professionals often must work in teams, which demands strong leadership. In two-person teams, one person must assume a leadership role and interact with the patient with the other takes vitals. In multiple casualty incidents, a triage system may be necessary where one caregiver supervises the administration of aid across the field.
Regardless of the situation, first aid professionals must identify their leadership strengths and find other professionals who complement them. For instance, I lead from my detail-oriented, analytical tendencies, which means that I work well with individuals skilled in hands-on activities like making splints (shout out to Lilly). As we learned from the StrengthsFinder Assessment, self-awareness about strengths is critical. I am excited to gain more of these insights as we transition to the backcountry phase of this course.
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