It was a compelling scene. A man lay in an awkward position at the base of a 50-foot cliff, and Upper Creek darted through the gorge below, the white water slamming into the rocks a few feet away.
The man groaned as if in pain before a young man in a hard hat arrived and rolled him over on his back, revealing a bright red liquid smeared on his forehead.
The spectacle was compelling, but as the sign up the hill indicated, it was all part of a weekend of wildlife training for EMTs, EMTs and medical students.
Hawk Ventures held its annual Carolina Wilderness EMS Summit recently in the Pisgah National Forest in North Berk County. This weekend-long event was the culmination of the Wilderness EMS Externship Program, which brought a resident and fourth-year student to Burke County for a month of extensive training in wilderness emergency medicine.
The externship is led by local physician Dr. Seth Collings Hawkins and is an innovative collaboration led by Hawk Ventures, which includes UNC Health Blue Ridge, Western Piedmont Community College and Wake Forest University School of Medicine.
The program has received numerous awards in the past, including the 2018 Medical Education Innovation Award from the Academic Emergency Medicine Association and the 2019 Karl Rohnke Award for Innovation from the Association for Experimental Education.
Last year, Hawkins expanded the program, launching a new exploratory model to expand training statewide.
This year, their overseas training included visits to the Outer Banks where they worked with the National Park Service, the US Coast Guard, and others. On Labor Day, they worked with Hyde County EMS as responders on Ocracoke Island.
During the program, the aliens also worked with several state parks around North Carolina. They attended a week’s rescue technical training at Pilot Mountain and received training in the cave system near Rumbling Bald with Blue Ridge Community College.
Near the house, the aliens received wildlife ranger training at Lake James State Park and helped conduct a weekend of medical training. Over thirty medical students from Wake Forest University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Campbell University attended this training.
The outgoings this year are Emily Helmer and Dr. Kara Hatleyfull.
Helmer is a fourth-year medical student at the University of Oregon Health Sciences in Portland. She said she was drawn to the program by the testimony of a good friend who was one of the last year’s outsiders.
“She came to me and told me this was her best month of medical school,” Helmer said.
Instead of pursuing emergency medicine, Helmer’s goal is to become a trauma surgeon. However, she is looking for ways to incorporate her passion for wildlife, rock climbing, and technical rescue systems into her career.
Hatlevoll is a third-year emergency medical resident at Norman Regional Hospital for Emergency Medicine in Norman, Oklahoma. Hatleyfull said she is working to integrate wildlife medicine into her career.
“It’s an opportunity for me to expand my education and learn about EMS in a wild medical environment,” she said. “Seeing how Dr. Hawkins and this wonderful team have integrated it into their careers is a good way to get a sense of how to do it successfully.”
She also said that the program’s recent shifts from a local training in the mountains to one that runs at various venues across the state has been a big draw.
Hawkins said that both outsiders exceeded his expectations throughout the duration of the program.
“We are committed to training the next generation of EMS physician leaders in the wild,” Hawkins said. “Kara and Emily definitely match that description.”
The culmination of the program, the summit opens up the experience to the broader medical community. This year’s event attracted medical providers, EMTs and medical students from across the country and as far away as Ireland for three days of intense training.
One of Hawkins’ favorite aspects at the top is inviting the former outsiders back to lead various aspects of training.
“One of the unexpected benefits of the program is the amount of contribution of the graduates,” he said. “When we have people training these two outsiders, it’s often these former outsiders who are now advancing in their careers that we turn to for training.”
Hawkins also said that Pisgah National Forest and Linville Gorge Wilderness are an ideal location for this type of training because the area has a little bit of everything.
“It’s so close to I-40 that it’s easy to get to and it’s a lot more rugged than people sometimes expect,” he said. “Statistically, it has one of the highest search and rescue rates in North Carolina each year, which is why this is a great training environment — to train in places where you will actually be working.”