What does spending four days in the woods of Nova Scotia getting eaten alive by black flies have to do with offshore voyaging? Well I have to admit I was asking myself the same question, particularly at ten o’clock at night when faced with a horrible lake motor boat accident: One compound fracture, one head injury quickly leading to seizures and death, one severe hypothermic 300 meters over broken ground from the only clear area for the helicopter evacuation that might just save his life, and finally a missing three year old child and his understandably hysterical mother. Oh yes, said mother had a broken arm. Did I mention it was black dark?
As you may have guessed by now, all of this was an exercise dreamed up by our chief instructor Blair Doyle (pictured left) during the four day Advanced Wilderness and Remote First Aid course Phyllis and I just completed. We soon learned to dread this slight smile since it meant that Blair had just dreamed up something truly fiendish for our training “pleasure”.
And get this, the above horror show was not the final test; the whole four days was filled with such scenarios: An old cranky guy with a heart attack—how come they picked me for that role? A raving drunk that turned out actually to be a sober diabetic having a low sugar crash. A spine injured woman jammed between two rocks next to the lake. Bones sticking out of legs and blood everywhere. It might have been fake, but it sure looked and felt real.
And often the problems presented in the scenarios were ones that we had not yet been instructed on. Welcome to “experiential training”: first you are exposed to and have to deal with the problem, and then you get the answer. What a great way to prepare a person for a medical emergency in the wilderness, because you know what? Out there, that’s exactly what it’s going to be like in an emergency. Mitigating the disaster will be 70% staying cool, thinking clearly and problem solving; and maybe 30% first aid knowledge—a lot like getting out of the yoghurt when things go pear-shaped at sea.
This is a great course for us offshore sailors, not only because the lessons are driven home with hands-on scenarios, but also because the course assumes that you are between several hours and many days from help, where just holding the injured person’s head to avoid further spinal injury or pressure stopping the bleeding for a few minutes while waiting for the EMTs is not going to cut it.
All weekend we were faced with the need to take action and not give in to the natural desire to do nothing or defer to others: We suspected a spinal injury, but if we didn’t move the person they would die of hypothermia. Frozen or paralyzed, it was our call. Of course we couldn’t be sure of our diagnosis, or really of anything. The course was all about hard decisions without enough information and too little time—a lot like the real world.
If you go offshore this is a great course that we highly recommend. And if you’re around Atlantic Canada, take it with Blair Doyle. He is a gifted instructor with a huge amount of experience, both in the wilderness and as a professional EMT.
Have you taken a first aid course to prepare you for offshore voyaging? Which one, and what did you think of it? Please leave a comment.