Wilderness Medicine

A few years ago I was at a horse show on a really hot day.  As “horse show mom”, my duties were simple:  get up early, drive child to show, groom and saddle horse, and stand around all day while trying NOT to offer helpful advice to said child.  On this particular humid day the temperature was in the nineties, and at high noon, the halter classes were taking place.  Twelve or thirteen little girls, and one lucky little boy (my son) were lined up side by side with their horses, standing rigid in the heat while the judge performed a detailed inspection.  As he made his way to the last pair, the little girl who had been patiently waiting her turn keeled over in a dead faint.  And then I heard the dreaded words called out in a panic—“Is there a DOCTOR in the house?”  I sent my son dashing to the car for my first aid kit, which contained a thermometer and smelling salts, and the trainer for ice.  Soon the girl was revived, having suffered only heat exhaustion and not the more serious heat stroke.  I had realized long ago that there were situations I would find myself in where I would be the only doctor, and somehow saying, “Sorry, I can’t help—I’m a highly specialized radiation oncologist” just doesn’t pass muster.

I bought that first aid kit already prepared and loaded with the necessities at the first Wilderness Medicine conference I ever attended, in Aspen Colorado.  In three or four fun filled days, my husband and I learned about snake bites, and heat stroke, and shark attacks, and how to make a makeshift splint, and what causes weird rashes on your nether regions (squatting in a bed poison ivy, or stinging nettles) and how to treat altitude sickness and traveler’s diarrhea and all of the other practical things one needs to know if venturing outside the confines of one’s sheltered home.  We learned about wilderness survival from a very articulate and handsome man who taught the SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) course that saved the life of Captain Scott O’Grady who was shot down over Bosnia in 1995 and who survived for six days on bugs and rainwater.  We learned that being lost in the wilderness due to weather, accident or injury is more common than we could ever imagine, and to this day I carry a flashlight, a solar blanket, a heavy plastic bag, matches, water and a whistle in every vehicle I drive.  Fifteen years after our first Wilderness Medicine conference, we went back last May to the same conference, this time in Santa Fe.  The basics were the same, but there were new classes in how to deal with an urban disaster such as a terrorist attack, or an earthquake.  This time I learned that the Space Station carries pregnancy tests in its medical kit—apparently despite the anti-fraternization rules for astronauts on duty,’ tis better to acknowledge the possibilities than deny them.

On Wednesday,  I sent my daughter to Hawaii for her first Wilderness Medicine conference—a vacation and graduation from medical school present.   She sent me a bubbly text message after the first evening of lectures—she had already learned some sage advice –and I would like to attribute it properly but she didn’t tell me which lecturer coined it: “ Don’t get bit, don’t eat shit, don’t do “it” and take your own kit!” Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scout movement, said it a little more simply:  Be Prepared.  Words to live by.


  1. The radiation oncologist I work with requested, when we planned for emergencies, he be the second call after 911…..so he could exit the building and let the paramedics work unencumbered. After years of rad onc work, he did not feel prepared to run a code. Thank you for being prepared!

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