Wilderness Medicine: One Month in the Life of My Wild Medical Education

1:19 PM

Author | Kate Heckman

Mount Ojibway, Isle Royale National Park: elevation 1,152 feet

Thus read the signpost I'd hiked so far to reach. My friends and I gathered together to gaze across the untouched landscape of primitive Isle Royale down to the spectacularly beautiful Lake Superior far below.

Sound like a dream? Absolutely!

Think I'm describing a vacation? Think again!

In my wildest hopes, fears, and dreams for medical school, never did I imagine that my education might involve a seven-day remote backpacking trip. You would appreciate the improbability of this, too, if you could only see how I scream and run from the spiders in my house, or witness my unhealthy dependence upon the microwave oven. Nonetheless, here I was, in the midst of some serious applied learning for my Wilderness Medicine elective course. Following this impossibly scenic – but brief – Mount Ojibway lunch break, the day's agenda still included four more miles of hiking, a lecture about avalanches from my classmate Bri, some regrettably opportune blister care training courtesy of Emergency Medicine resident and trip leader Erika, and a group dinner around an eagerly anticipated campfire.

Bella, Joel, Brooke, Megan, Cameron, and Courtney represent University of Michigan even on our remote weeklong backpacking trip on Isle Royale. Go Blue!

Bella, Joel, Brooke, Megan, Cameron, and Courtney represent University of Michigan even on our remote weeklong backpacking trip on Isle Royale. Go Blue!


How did I come upon this Wilderness Medicine educational opportunity, you ask? The answer lies in the Branches. Anyone who is ever-so-slightly familiar with the University of Michigan Medical School has likely heard all about our new curriculum, which features a unique 17-month "Branches" phase. The "Branches" refers to elective educational time following the standardized core didactic and clinical curriculum, which allows students to customize their medical education. This affords ample time for research, volunteerism, international experiences, career exploration, educational enrichment, or whatever pursuits fit your educational mission.

I'm someone who likes to know a little something about everything, so I capitalized on my Branches time to experience (seemingly) every medical subspecialty known to mankind. You name it, I did the elective: Critical Care, Ophthalmology, Anesthesiology, Emergency Medicine, Gastroenterology and Hepatology, Plastic Surgery, Otolaryngology, Radiology, Dermatology, and more. (I even created my own elective in Comparative Medicine along with my classmate Erika!) It is almost unheard of for a physician to have formal, dedicated exposure to such a variety of fields, but this diversity of experience will prove invaluable in my future Internal Medicine practice: starting as a resident this July, I will serve as the first point of contact in the medical system for patients with any and all medical problems.

The Wilderness Medicine course was just as invaluable an experience as these electives, and arguably the most fun. This class offered a medical approach to all things austere courtesy of University of Michigan's Emergency Medicine doctors Nate, Will, Bella, and Erika. Notable lectures covered animal attacks, lightning injuries, submersion injuries, altitude illness, and avalanches. Outside of the classroom, our hands-on experiences were truly wild. We learned about caving rescue operations from the experts at Buckner Cave in Indiana, then tried our hand at rescuing a volunteer "victim" – our poor, brave classmate Laura – from a section of the cave that was only 12 inches tall! (I'm still not sure how we pulled that off.) We practiced recognizing toxic plants and learned to distinguish them from edible look-alikes at the Michigan State University Botanical Gardens – yes, taste-testing was involved for those of us confident in our knowledge! We put our water purification skills to the ultimate test while camping, under risk of acquiring a friendly moose tapeworm. Needless to say, this knowledge base in common wilderness practices and emergencies will serve me well when any "outdoors-y" medical questions arise from patients, friends, or family.

Upon reflection, though, I've realized that Wilderness Medicine – for all its crazy adventures – was not so different from the rest of my medical school experience. After all, I've spent the last four years conquering the unknown and doing things I never would have imagined!

For example, I still remember my terror at the prospect of seeing my very first patient. I was on the inpatient Obstetrics service, and my patient had given birth via cesarean section ("c-section") the day prior. I stalled pretty impressively by reading her chart, taking the stairs, and sipping my coffee, thinking "I can't do this." But when I pictured this scared woman lying in a hospital bed hoping to see a doctor – and let's be honest, when my coffee ran empty and I was almost out of time before the team's morning meeting – the words "I can't" turned to "I must." I'm sure I was anything but adept and confident, but hey, every medical provider starts by seeing their first patient ever. Since then, seeing patients has become second nature through practice, practice, practice.

My subsequent clinical experiences would only bring more stretching and unexpected undertakings: delivering babies, procuring organs for life-saving transplant operations, suturing wounds, responding to emergencies, and performing CPR, to name a few. Not to mention amassing an amount of knowledge I never would have believed possible for such a short (yes, short!) period of study as medical school.

Even now, as a fourth-year student who has finished applying for residency, I'm taking on new things. In dermatology clinic today, I performed my first punch biopsy of a difficult-to-diagnose skin condition. With close guidance from my supervising dermatology resident physician – shout-out to Dr. Hawkins – the procedure was a success! We hope that our Pathology colleagues, who will evaluate the biopsy, can help us confirm a diagnosis for this patient soon.

All in all, Wilderness Medicine was the highlight of what has been a challenging but rewarding four years of medical school. This course underscored the most important thing I've learned from medicine – I am capable of more than I imagine. I'm excited for the next phase of my adventure as my classmates and I begin residency this summer. Bring on the challenge – it's what we do!

Bri, LaVana, Laura, Megan, and Cameron show off their casting work following an emergency splinting lecture from the Orthopedic Surgery residents for the Wilderness Medicine class.
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