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June 2015

Debra McGhan

By appointment
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While organizing gear for a fishing trek to the Russian River two men belonging to the car parked next to us came rushing up in a panic. The older man had blood spurting from his wrist and a fish hook buried deep in the flesh.

My adult son, who has little formal medical training beyond Wilderness First Aid, instantly shot into action and began taking charge of the scene.

“Mom, grab the first aid kit,” he directed. “Michelle, get my filet knife out of my pack and get my stove going. Boil some water.”

Within minutes we had the man seated on a camp chair, antibacterial wash rinsing off the wound, and a pair of plyers and filet knife prepped to pull the hook out so the barbs would not do any more damage. It didn’t take long to get the hook out, despite the serious depth and angle it was embedded, clean, disinfect and bandage the wound.

The whole thing was handled with calm and confidence because we knew what to do despite the adrenaline surging through all of us. I’ve had other experiences that were nothing like this.

One summer I rounded a corner on Fairview Loop Road and came face to face with a four-wheeler crash involving two teenage girls and a pick-up truck. A man was crouched on the ground in front of the truck. He was holding the head of one of the victims who lay motionless in front of him.

The second girl sat in the middle of the road screaming frantically while blood ran down the side of her face and pooled around her.

I had no medical training. I felt terrified. Looking around at the otherwise deserted road, I knew, I had no choice, I had to do something.

Fortunately within a minute more cars stopped and neighbors came rushing out of nearby homes to help. I called for emergency medical services and then focused on calming the screaming victim while the driver of the truck, who had apparently collided with the girls, continued to hold the head of the unconscious victim.

I acted on impulse and just did what I thought was best at the time. I wasn’t sure and I hated that. I realized I wanted and needed to know what to do.

Less than two week later I turned up Beverly Lake Road off of Pittman Road and noticed a motorcycle lying in the ditch on the right side of the road with the wheel spinning. I glanced to my left and realized there was a person lying in the ditch on that side. I pulled over and ran up to the boy lying in the ditch. I knew instantly it was bad. His femur bone was sticking out a jagged tear in his jeans just above his knee. I gagged.

I looked up and down the deserted road in horror. Tears clouded my eyes and I felt terrified and angry that I’d found myself in another situation where I didn’t have a clue what I should do beyond comfort this boy until someone else could call for real ems help.

The agonizing minutes of holding this boy in my arms trying to comfort him until someone else finally came to call for help seemed like hours. I signed up for a first aid class the next day.

That was more than 20-years-ago. In April I completed my third round of a 16-hour wilderness first aid course with the North America Outdoor Institute to renew my national Wilderness First Aid certification. I sat next to Jim Studley from Anchorage. Jim was the only person in the class that was taking this for the first time. The other 11-students had been certified previously and were refreshing skills. Jim, a pilot for UPS, proved to be a fast learner.

“Why are you taking this class?” the instructor asked as he queried each student in the room.

Jim explained he likes to fish and hike and ride snowmachines and had experienced a couple of incidents in the past where he needed to know this stuff.


Sierra Plumb gets help from a friend during a simulated accident during the NAOI Wilderness First Aid course.

“I just don’t want to be that guy again that doesn’t know what to do.” he said.

It made me think about the times I’d been ‘that guy.’

As the class progressed and we found ourselves dealing with more advanced medical emergencies, the more my confidence grew. I still have so much to learn but if I find myself in the unfortunate position to be first on the scene of a serious accident again, I will know the right steps to follow to ensure I don’t make things worse and can provide real aid.

I’ll know that the truck driver was doing exactly the right thing by holding that little girls head perfectly still. There was definitely an MOI (mechanism of injury) that could have resulted in a broken neck. He was holding her ‘C’ spine to prevent her from moving and severing her spinal column which would have meant certain death.

I would have known it was the right thing to call for ems and comfort the second victim while we waited for help to arrive. And now I would be able to do much more for this victim because I would have my first aid kit and a blanket in my car to treat her for shock and stop the flow of blood.

I hope I don’t have to use the skills I’ve learned, whether in the front country or the wilderness, but I’m grateful I have them so I can be calm and confident if the need presents itself.

It doesn’t matter how old you might be, learning medical skills can save you or someone else you know. We found in our wilderness medical classes that some of the best responders were as young as eight-years-old.

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