On course to be a life saver

HOLLY HUNT spends seven intense days learning wilderness emergency medicine in the wilds of the Wicklow Mountains

HOLLY HUNTspends seven intense days learning wilderness emergency medicine in the wilds of the Wicklow Mountains

‘I’M SORRY, but I’m afraid she’s gone,” Dr Jel Coward said sympathetically. My mind stopped its manic rushing and I sat there in confused shock. For nearly two hours, in the freezing cold, we had been desperately trying to keep this woman alive.

Despite all our efforts she had just continued to slip into deeper unconsciousness until finally her heart gave up altogether. Numbly I reached up to pull the blanket over her shoulders against the biting wind, and then realised there was no point. In the distance, other casualties cried for help, the Sugar Loaf was littered with them.

She wasn’t really dead and none of the other casualties were really hurt, but the mock rock fall disaster felt so unbelievably real. Some 21 of us had spent seven intense days learning wilderness emergency medicine in the wilds of the Wicklow Mountains. The rock fall disaster was the testing culmination of everything we had learnt.


Other disaster response teams, such as the civil defence, were using the simulation as a good opportunity to practise their skills; more than a hundred people in helmets and high-viz vests could be seen running around the Sugar Loaf that day.

VHF radios crackled out continuous messages, stretchers were being ferried around and everyone taking part in the mock-up did so with complete seriousness. A number of families out for a quiet walk looked more than slightly frightened.

The full-on week was a course run by WEMSI, or the Wilderness Emergency Medical Services Institute, which is based in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. The group was enticed across the Atlantic by Joe O’Gorman from Mountain Rescue Ireland. The aim was to help give Irish mountain rescue teams top quality wilderness medical knowledge. You may not think of Ireland as privy to wilderness areas that merit this sort of training but Mountain Rescue Ireland provides an essential service to hundreds of people every year.

Last year, the Dublin Wicklow Mountain Rescue team alone conducted 65 rescue operations. There are another 11 mountain rescue teams active in Ireland, including the Tramore Cliff and Mountain Rescue Association and the Search and Rescue Dog Association. Together they provide a completely voluntary 24-hour 999/112 emergency service to the people of Ireland.

Over time the course has been opened up to others working in wilderness situations, such as army medics and expedition leaders. The WEMSI instructors are highly experienced doctors, paramedics and mountain rescue personnel from all over the world who give up their time free of charge.

WEMSI has the energy of a family of inspiring eccentrics all passionately driven by their love for something many would find very hard to grasp: that of throwing yourself into a disastrous situation and managing to make the best of it. A number of the instructors are on US disaster teams that are flown into earthquakes and floods to try to pick up the pieces. And everyone involved has a passion for some physically gruelling sport.

The plan was to cram two years of medicine into one week. We worked from 8.30am till 10 at night with hardly a minute to breathe.

There is no gentle getting to know one another on a course like this. On day one we were doing full body assessments. We tied each other into stretchers, bandaged and cast each other’s arms and legs and stopped each other’s blood flow. It’s safe to say we got to know each other very quickly.

Every evening in our teams of four we’d head out into the dark and trudge through the mud treating casualties. Broken bones, dislocations, ectopic pregnancies, altitude sickness, climbers crushed under rocks, paragliders hanging out of trees – to a passerby there seemed to be an awful lot of careless people in the Wicklow Mountains that week.

And the “casualties” took their acting seriously. At one point I leaned over a patient and asked the team leader to relay to base that we had a woman with a possible miscarriage, which had the result of sending her into hysterical screaming and crying for the next half hour.

By the end of the week, my head was buzzing with an overload of medical information but I also felt I had gained a level of confidence to calmly deal with an emergency situation. Fingers crossed I’ll remember something.

As we finished up on the Sugar Loaf, and my patient came miraculously back to life, dark rain clouds moved in. All mud splattered and tired, we were en route to the pub when the mountain rescue team’s beepers went off. Four Portuguese tourists were lost in the hills, for real, one of them having injured their ankle.

At the end of seven exhausting days when all we could think of was a cold pint and bed, the mountain rescue teams put back on their jackets, loaded their packs and headed back out into the rain. Four or five hours later the tourists were found and safely brought home.

It is inspiring to know that, in our you-can’t-get-something-for-nothing society in Ireland, more than 365 men and women give their time and energy every month to looking after others.

Mountain Rescue Ireland receives minimal funding from the Government and is mainly supported by public donations. For more information see mountainrescue.ie.

The WEMSI Wilderness Emergency Medical Technician course is aimed at practitioners who are responsible for providing medical and trauma pre-hospital care in real remote environments. For further information, see wemsi-europe.org.