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Beckwith Scholarship Recipient

Reflections on my NOLS Wilderness First Responder Course

By Christina Gibson Course Date: May 2019, Landmark Learning, Cullowhee, NC Instructors: Scott Lipscomb and Felipe Jacome

As an urban community herbalist and a whitewater river guide, the benefits of my NOLS WFR experience have been manifold and the value has been profound. I would like to share how both of these lines of my work have been influenced by completing my first WFR course this past season.

For almost five years now, I have been working on the front lines of grassroots health care, offering first aid and earth-based ongoing care for our friends living on the streets in Atlanta, Georgia with a project called Herbalista Free Clinic. This works truly takes place in the landscape of the urban wilderness; this is where aid is often inaccessible due not to geography, but instead to complex, deeply ingrained issues of institutionalized socioeconomic oppression and the industrialization of medicine. This is the landscape where people experiencing homelessness too often fall through the cracks of health care, and where a third of people in this community die from treatable or preventable conditions.

The NOLS curriculum filled critical gaps in my medical knowledge and assessment skills when working with the “rough sleeper” homeless community (i.e., folks sleeping and living entirely on the streets or in open air rather than in shelters). In particular, the NOLS patient assessment framework has empowered me to remain calm, thorough, and able to recognize when direction to higher care is in order to prevent yet another unnecessary death, such as listening to someone’s lungs and detecting early signs of pneumonia, or tending to an infected wound appropriately knowing it might be hours or days before that person will get to a hospital. As a volunteer, community clinician trained primarily in plant-based remedies, this refinement and expansion of my assessment skill-set from my WFR education has been invaluable to my confidence level working in settings where doctors are not immediately accessible. In addition to medical first responder skills, I also acquired an expanded vocabulary and understanding of the importance of psychological first aid. I so appreciate that NOLS includes a section on this critical but usually subtle set of signs, symptoms, and treatment protocols in the WFR curriculum. Helping someone feel safe, comfortable, seen, and heard in a non-judgmental and non-hierarchical way--for the safety of both themselves and others--is a huge part of the work we do in free clinics, where psychological stress is often the baseline, the status quo. However, this skill-set transcends the role and ethical standards of a first responder, encompassing that universal moral duty we all have of being, simply put, a compassionate fellow human being. Psychological first aid describes those intangible skills that might just save a life -- though we may never know it -- with a basic act of recognizing and displaying sheer humanity. Thank you for giving this nuanced piece of care its due attention.

Of course my WFR experience has also carried over into my outdoor adventure tendencies, passions, and work in whitewater environments, which I would be remiss not to include in this testimonial. For example, this past summer I expanded my personal whitewater kayaking hobby into a leadership role as a whitewater raft guide for a commercial company on the Ocoee River in East Tennessee. Though I was merely a “rookie” guide not deemed worthy of carrying the medical kit in the fleet of rafts (yet), I felt confident that I could focus more on the aspects of reading the river and reading my customers knowing that, if needed, I could respond to a situation on any raft, with any company or private trip on the river that day. And again, the subtle skills of assessing and responding to my customers’ sense of safety, i.e., psychological first aid, came into play on a daily basis in this role. In one true backcountry incident on the river this summer, I responded swiftly to early and subtle signs of heat stroke in a fellow crew member on the first day of a private one-week river expedition oar-rigging in Hells Canyon, Idaho. I was deeply grateful for my WFR training that kicked in for me in that moment, which prevented the need for evacuation and enabled the patient to physically recover, emotionally protect her dignity, and participate in and enjoy the remainder of the expedition.

Reflecting on my Wilderness First Responder course this past spring, my overall gratitude runs deep for the people and the instruction that shaped the experience; for the newfound confidence and skills to assist in emergencies or minor incidents in any setting, from the backcountry to the urban wild; for the weaving of energetic and allopathic medicine; for the privilege to carve out space in my life for continuing education; and of course, for the signs from medicinal plant allies--like the encounter with ghost pipe at the end of my WFR course--that continue to light the way, affirm the journey, and keep things interesting.

I look forward to participating in future courses at Landmark Learning, and I cannot recommend a full Wilderness First Responder Course highly enough. Many thanks and blessings to the instructors, the fellow students, the land, and the call to adventure that keeps us alive and wild.

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