How a Writing Major became a Wilderness First Responder

It’s a little ironic that I recently became more medically certified to treat/assess patients in emergency situations than the myriad Pre-Med students that populate the Johns Hopkins campus, considering I’m studying creative writing and I know considerably more about iambic pentameter than the nervous system. However, my experience with the Wilderness Medicine Institute (WMI) under the National Outdoors Leadership School (NOLS) taking the Wilderness First Responder (WFR) course was an incomparable and unforgettable experience.


So what brought a book-worm to the stethoscopes and gauze? Well, as a recent hire as a sea kayaking leader, my school requires me to have the certification in order to lead trips. Before taking the course, it really felt like a formality that would be time intensive and a general struggle-bus for 80 hours in 10 days taking up a large chunk of my winter break. I wasn’t sure how good at it I’d be, and that always scares me. My mom is the  medical personnel in the family and I usually just consult her for whatever ailment I might currently be experiencing. But now it was my turn.

On the first day of WFR, I dragged myself out of bed at 7am (the earliest I’ve woken up in quite some time) and threw on as many clothes as I could (it’s been FRIGID in Baltimore, except today it’s like 70 degrees…) I didn’t know anyone in the class, and I had 10 hours in front of me before I could leave on my first day. Oh, and I’m pretty much the only non-freshman from Hopkins that took it, since I became a leader so late into my Hopkins career. I wasn’t exactly feeling keen on the experience. But as soon as my instructors came into the room, my attitude started turning around. Their passionate attitude towards wilderness medicine was immediately contagious. By day 3, I’d already assessed several simulated patients (my fellow classmates) and was able to determine and fix any possible life threats they may have. I could deliver a SOAP note (doctor speak for basically a medical chart) like a pro by day 4. I was making “svelte” femur traction splints, as my instructor Anna would have said, halfway through.

I began racking up the skills. I can perform CPR. I can assemble a sturdy splint with merely a sleeping pad, a few t-shirts, and a pair of socks. I can do my best to patch a bullet wound with a credit card and some tape, and I can stabilize a chest with multiple, floating broken ribs with a t-shirt and some ace wraps.  I’ve literally walked through icy river water and lifted someone out of it without shifting their spine. I know how to recognize a severe brain injury and I won’t panic (hopefully) if I see something bad happen to someone out on one of the trips I lead. The day my teammate and I passed our practical and written exams, I attached my WMI and NOLS stickers to the front of my laptop and felt an extreme sense of accomplishment and responsibility. I felt a real inclination to help. I’d highly recommend WFR to any person that regularly frequents the outdoors, alone or with a group. You never know when someone might need your help: when something might happen, and the nearest help is a 10 mile hike away.


My instructor told me that she receives letters all the time of graduates of WFR who are the first to respond on emergency medical situations, often within 48 hours of their graduation. We’ll see if I get the chance- though I hope I won’t need to!


Please leave any comments or questions you might have for me! I love to hear back! I’ll be posting more about my new position as a sea kayaking leader in the Maryland/Virginia/Pennsylvania area soon.


4 responses to “How a Writing Major became a Wilderness First Responder

  1. What an awesome experience Jenna! I am so psyched for you. I hope someday to head into the wilderness with you…

  2. Interesting stuff. Can you describe more about treating a bullet wound with a credit card? I work with card companies and this would be an interesting thing to know (and probably good cocktail party conversation). Thanks!

    • Sorry I only just saw this comment! Sure-
      Essentially when you’re in the wilderness without chance of emergency responders with professional equipment, you have to use what you’ve got on you. Luckily, most cards (credit cards, licenses) are solid and flexible and are the best options for trying to stop bleeding from a small source like a bullet wound. Taping around the four corners heavily after staunching the bleeding is one of the best options a wilderness first responder would have. I luckily haven’t had to apply it (yet)! Let me know if you have any more questions!

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