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Medical professionals prepare with wilderness training


MORGANTON, N.C. — It was a convincing scene. A man lay in an awkward position at the base of a 50-foot drop, Upper Creek rushed through the gorge below, whitewater lapping up the rocks just a few feet from him.

The man groaned as if he is in pain before a young man in a hardhat arrives rolling him onto his back, revealing bright red liquid smeared across his forehead.

The scene was convincing, but as the sign at the top of the hill indicated, it was all part of a weekend of wilderness training for emergency medical professionals, EMTs and medical students.

Hawk Ventures held its annual Carolina Wilderness EMS Summit recently in The Pisgah National Forest in northern Burke County. The weekend-long event was the culmination of its Wilderness EMS Externship Program which brought a resident physician and a fourth-year med student to Burke County for a month of intensive training in emergency wilderness medicine.

Run by local physician Dr. Seth Collings Hawkins, the externship is an innovative collaboration led by Hawkins’ company, Hawk Ventures, that includes UNC Health Blue Ridge, Western Piedmont Community College and Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

The program has won numerous awards in the past, including the Society for Academic Emergency Medicine’s 2018 Innovation in Medical Education Award and the Association for Experiential Education’s 2019 Karl Rohnke Creativity Award.

Last year, Hawkins expanded the program, launching a new expeditionary model to expand the training statewide.

This year, the externship has included visits to the Outer Banks where they worked with the National Park Service, U.S. Coast Guard and others. On Labor Day, they worked with Hyde County EMS as responders on Ocracoke Island.

During the program, externs also worked with multiple state parks around North Carolina. They attended a week-long technical rescue training at Pilot Mountain and received training in a caving system near Rumbling Bald with Blue Ridge Community College.

Closer to home, externs received wilderness lifeguard training at Lake James State Park and helped run a weekend-long medical training. This training was attended by more than three dozen medical students from Wake Forest, UNC-Chapel Hill and Campbell University.

This year’s externs were Emily Hillmer and Dr. Kara Hatlevoll.

Hillmer is a fourth-year medical student from Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland. She said she was drawn to the program through the testimonial of a good friend who was one of last year’s externs.

“She came to me and told me this was her best month of medical school,” Hillmer said.

Rather than pursuing emergency medicine, Hillmer’s goal is to become a trauma surgeon. Still, she is looking for ways to incorporate her passion for wilderness, rock climbing and technical rescue systems into her career.

Hatlevoll is a third-year resident emergency physician from Norman Regional Emergency Medicine Residency in Norman, Oklahoma. Hatlevoll said she is working to incorporate wilderness medicine into her career going forward.

“It’s an opportunity for me to expand my learning and exposure to EMS in a wilderness medical setting,” she said. “Seeing how Dr. Hawkins and this incredible team has incorporated it into their careers is a good way to learn about how I can successfully do that.”

She also said recent transitions in the program from a local mountain training to one that spans various settings from across the state was a big draw.

Hawkins said both externs exceeded his expectations throughout the course of the program.

“We are committed to training the next generation of wilderness EMS physician leaders,” said Hawkins. “Kara and Emily match that description for sure.”

As the culmination of the program, the summit opens the experience up to the wider medical community. This year’s event drew medical providers, EMTs and medical students from across the country and as far away as Ireland for three days of intensive training.

One of Hawkins’ favorite aspects of the summit is inviting past externs back to lead various aspects of the training.

“An unexpected benefit to the program has been how much graduates continue to contribute,” he said. “When we have had people training these two externs, frequently it’s the previous externs who are now advancing their careers that we turn to for the training.”

Hawkins also said the Pisgah National Forest and the Linville Gorge Wilderness are a perfect location for this kind of training because the area has a little bit of everything.

“It’s so proximal to I-40 that it’s very easy to access and much more rugged than people sometimes expect,” he said. “Statistically, it has one of the highest rates of searches and rescues in North Carolina every year, and that’s why this is such a great training environment — to train in the spaces where you would actually be operating.”

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