WWAMI Wilderness Medicine Retreat Fosters Team Building and Readies Med Students for Local Challenges
by Vicki Nechodomu |
In the expansive wilderness of Alaska, medical emergencies can strike anywhere, be it a remote hiking trail or a backcountry ski adventure. To equip future healthcare providers with the skills required for such challenges, Alaska’s WWAMI School of Medical Education organizes an annual Wilderness Medicine Retreat at the Alyeska Ski Resort in Girdwood, AK. This opportunity, designed for WWAMI’s first-year medical students, provides a platform for learning fundamental skills, fostering trust, and collaborating with local experts and community partners through simulated scenarios.
Brian McGorry, the owner and program director of Alaska Coastal Safety LLC, played a pivotal role as the lead instructor and host liaison for this year’s retreat, which took place on Sept. 14. He also serves as a patroller at Alyeska Ski Patrol and an adjunct professor for various UAA courses.
“The field of wilderness medicine provides some inspiration and also serves as a good hook to keep students engaged,” said McGorry, underlining not only the allure of wilderness medicine, but also the potential for these future healthcare professionals to choose Alaska as their long-term home. “As we know, Alaska often loses both college aged students as well as highly trained professionals to the Lower 48. Many of the ones that stick around are here because of our opportunities for outdoor recreation.”
Real-Life Scenarios: Preparing for the Unexpected
The retreat's curriculum covers a range of foundational skills and emergency scenarios. During the morning session, students learn a basic head-to-toe patient assessment and practical skills such as hemorrhage control, splinting, and patient packaging in challenging environments.
In the afternoon, students are faced with unexpected challenges as volunteer actors simulate emergency scenarios, including a bear attack and the aftermath of a downed plane. This year’s event provided students with a steady, chilly autumn rain and thick mud as they contended with the range of scenarios. The volunteers, adorned with makeup and adhesive wounds, played their parts convincingly, exhibiting a wide range of symptoms and behaviors, from screams to tears, obstinacy to passing out. This element of surprise in the scenarios pushed students to apply their morning-learned skills while under heightened stress.
“Medical students generally spend the first two years in a classroom, so any real, tangible patient care skills training is really exciting for them,” said Dr. Tanya Leinicke, an emergency physician and adjunct associate professor, college mentor, and assistant clinical professor for the WWAMI program.
Building a Cohesive Class: The Retreat's Role in Medical Education
Leinicke developed the Alaska WWAMI's Wilderness Medicine Retreat in response to a curriculum redesign in 2015, introducing a focus on clinical integration and group learning during students’ first week in the program. “The retreat was created in order to get the students out of the classroom and out of their comfort zones during that first week,” said Leinicke. “It also helps to build a cohesive class that can journey through their education together, helping each other learn and grow.”
Leinicke emphasized that many medical malpractice issues stem from inadequate communication and the absence of a team mentality that encourages open dialogue among professionals at different levels of training and certification. “It is vitally important that these young students learn to appreciate and work beside other health workers including EMS providers and nurses,” said Leinicke. “We hope this will set the stage for better teamwork and interprofessional interactions as they progress to physicians.”
Community and Preparedness in Alaska's Future Physicians
That message was heard loud and clear by first year WWAMI medical student Rya Berrigan. "My main takeaway from the WWAMI wilderness medicine training is the sense of community among healthcare providers. Whether you work as a first responder or in a hospital, everyone is on the same team, using their strengths and training to provide the best care possible at each stage.”
McGreggory reflected on the composition of this year's group of 25 students, the largest Alaska WWAMI cohort to date. “I particularly enjoyed the diversity and the spectrum of past experience there was in the room,” he said. “There were some people who had advanced certifications in Wilderness Medicine as well as some who had no prior outdoor experience. A vast majority of the students seem to be from Alaska, which was also great.”
“I think it’s important for Alaska WWAMI students to gain wilderness medical experience simply because we all live and recreate here, and many of us plan to have our careers based here,” said Berrigan, who grew up in Palmer, AK. “As we train to become physicians in Alaska, it is an added responsibility to be knowledgeable and comfortable treating patients either while we are in the wilderness ourselves, or if we see patients come in with injuries or illnesses sustained while out in the wilderness."
The Power of Collaboration
The success of the retreat hinges on the contributions of over a dozen volunteers, most of which are current WAMMI students and friends and family of WAMMI faculty and staff. The retreat owes much of its success to local partners, including the Alyeska Ski Club, Alyeska Resort, Alaska Coastal Safety, and LifeMed, who generously contributed space, time, and expertise. The collaborative spirit underscores the community's commitment to nurturing its future healthcare providers.
“People care about WWAMI and its students. I believe the community values local youth staying here in Alaska to train and then returning to Alaska to provide excellent patient care,” said Leinicke.
Read More: Check out the story, "Alaska WWAMI Equips Future Doctors for Wilderness Medicine in Girdwood," in the Turnagain News.
- Department of Human Services
- Division of Population Health Sciences
- Justice Center
- School of Allied Health
- School of Nursing
- School of Preventive & Therapeutic Sciences
- School of Social Work
CENTERS & INSTITUTES
- Alaska Center for Rural Health and Health Workforce
- Center for Human Development
- Child Welfare Academy
- Interprofessional Health Sciences Simulation Center
MEDIA INQUIRIES / STORY LEADS