What deranged group of people would spend its entire vacation taking a course where the requirements include standing in or near a below-freezing creek for hours, and later learning about ailments that range from entopic pregnancies to patella dislocations to legs impaled by tree branches?
Princeton students, that’s who. Thirty-five of them, no less.
Admittedly, I was among those of somewhat questionable mental status who signed up for the University-sponsored Wilderness First Responder (WFR) course that took place during intersession. The course trains students to administer to anaphylaxis (which is a result of hypersensitivity to foreign drugs), perform CPR, and give basic life support in the wilderness. Most Princeton students who become “WFRs” are either the crunchy, gorp-eating types who work with Outdoor Action, or the ambitious sort who intend to go to medical school. Whatever the motivation, we all piled out of Saturday morning exams and into vans to make the trip up to The Princeton-Blairstown Center.
The moment the first class started, I knew I was in for a rough week. The course seemed to be made up of an unending stream of homework, lectures, drills, and simulations. What’s worse, the teachers used acronyms or code names for everything—for example, instead of crying for help, we were instructed to shriek “peanut butter,” instead. The terminology used in lecture was so foreign to me that, by passing, I might as well have been fulfilling a language requirement. But passing was another issue: between all the acronyms and code words, the teachers managed to slip in references to failing the course with amazing frequency. My mind, still fresh from its “I’m going to fail my first semester” form, soon slipped into its “I’m going to fail WFR” mode.
On top of that, students would ask oodles of mind-numbing, time-consuming questions, and the teachers would torture us further by putting up rather gruesome pictures of ailments and injuries in the slide shows. As if that weren’t enough, the teachers ended the first lecture by reminding us that the stoves heating our cabins would turn off in the middle of the night. Who doesn’t love the woods in the winter?
The homework itself wasn’t really such a big problem; rather, reading the actual assignments proved most daunting. The only way to read in the dark cabin is to use a headlamp, a harsh white light bulb that attaches to your head. While great for searching for a place to relieve oneself in the middle of the night, headlamps aren’t really meant for reading—the blinding light, which bounces back off the white pages into your eyes, feels like it burns holes in your retina. I was tempted to scream “peanut butter!” any time the lights went out and the headlight went on.
But what really began to induce ASR (Acute Stress Reaction) for me were the drills. Half of the class would be carted outside and given a patient profile. The instructors might drip blood—which smelled suspiciously like dish soap—on our hands and tell us to run around screaming and limping. They could also give us the head of a lollypop to “choke” on. The other half of the class would then walk out to rescue the patients.
I don’t know if it was the cold air hitting my face or the fact that I had begun to sleep with my eyes open during lecture, but the second I would walk out to help the victim, my mind would always go completely blank. Caring for a patient who is freaking out is hard enough; when your mental sanity has been compromised by a week in the woods, it’s even harder.
But nothing I encountered during the week was quite like simulation. These “disaster situations” were specifically assembled so that everyone involved pretends to have several terrible ailments. An example of a hypothetical situation we encountered goes something like this: while setting up camp for the night a bear comes in and mauls a camper. Another camper is so shocked and distracted that he allows the stove to blow up, giving him respiratory burns. The explosion causes a branch on a tree to fall on another camper and impale him. This branch just happens to have a beehive on it, so three campers are now in anaphylactic shock, but there are only two doses of Epinephrine available. One is these is being hoarded by another patient who is convinced that he is allergic to all bees and is going into shock even though he is perfectly fine. You get the picture. As we learned, there are always too many problems and never enough resources. Plus, all problems must be dealt with in real time, so simulations can last up to two hours—in 14-degree weather. Unfortunately, the patients then must speak up and explain that they aren’t supposed to have hypothermia for the simulation—they just literally can’t stop shivering.
By the end of the week the group had turned into a chorus of sniffling and coughing healers and victims. I used my newly attained knowledge to diagnose my classmates with respiratory complications secondary to mild hypothermia. Even though we anticipated many cases of bronchitis for the class, we did not beg for a warmer setting. The wild had toughened these newbie WFRs, even if we weren’t shy about using a giant Purell pump early and often.
Throughout my training I was nauseous, cold, stressed and tired, and I felt like my mental health was quickly deteriorating. Looking back, though, I realize I was lucky. But why? Was it that I was learning something that could actually be useful? Or because I was bonding with a great group of kids over battle wounds and the pride of surviving the course? Perhaps it was the suhweet tee shirts? Maybe the long hours and hard work involved in the WFR course beat in my mind and body, but I realized that, as I returned to the real world of second semester, I would be allowed no more practice runs or simulations, and I certainly wouldn’t be able to sleep during class with my eyes open, at least not as easily.