Does expedition medicine count as global health? Unsure but let’s write about it anyway. The Wilderness Medical Training Course in Chamonix is infamous. Five days of learning about expedition medicine on the slopes of Mont Blanc with mornings off for “free time” – what is there not to like? So when my GP friend Sophie (who I met whilst in Japan) casually texted me saying “I’ve bought my ticket and I’ve sorted out my study leave”, I realised that it would be rude not to book.
I cannot fault the pre-course materials. There were links to local accommodation and transfers with discounts with certain ski hire companies. There was plenty of information about ski passes and there was also a Facebook group so that you could get together with others to book a flat or a chalet. Our flat for four cost £200 each (shared between four) for the week and transfers around £30 each way.
The course is laid out over five days from 3pm to 7pm which gives ample opportunity to hit the slopes and the après-ski. I only had the energy to do one or the other but, given that roughly over half the course were F2’s and F3’s, most had adequate youth on their side to achieve both! The course was led by some pretty inspirational people, an A&E consultant from Bristol, and a Professional Expedition Leader, who had, very impressively, climbed Everest. The Faculty were young and dynamic and included our own JIC ex-core committee member, Lucy Obolensky who was our former Education and Training Lead. The lectures covered useful topics such as altitude sickness, hypothermia and hyperthermia as well as motivational talks at the end of the day (with some wine). There was a practical session which meant that we were running a trauma scenario in the snow, tying knots and letting people down a (very mild) slope and learning about basic orienteering. The accompanying handbook was very comprehensive and meant that we could sit and listen to the lectures rather than scribble away.
Now this is the first course in a while where I’ve been hanging out with non-GP medics. Most were either at F2 or F3 level and hadn’t decided a career path and I think I only identified six or seven other GP’s in the group. Now I can imagine that this is challenging for any course convener to try and appeal to the masses, all at different stages of their training across different specialties, and I think they did well at that. The only negative I would say was that there was a lot of focus on trauma and fracture management, difficult situational calls and what I would call the sexier side of medicine, which was a little bit intimidating (and rather off-putting) for someone who had never been an expedition medic given that I’ve been away from the hustle and bustle of the hospital for some time now. For the record, I did write this in my formal feedback to the course.
It was only when you start talking to the Faculty members individually that I realised that a lot of the things you’re expected to deal with, on a day-to-day basis, was perfect for GPs: not just the clinical aspect but also the skills in managing people, being adaptable and not batting an eyelid at the questions that require common sense not a medical degree. When you get past the initial “not sure if I can do this” freeze, I remember that actually we are trained to deal with emergencies in the surgery as it is. In fact, perhaps I should have listened harder to Harvey, the A&E consultant, who clearly did say that GP (or ED) experience was a necessity for expedition medicine.
Overall, what I loved about and have taken away from the WMT course was my shift in perspective that ensued – like taking the red pill in the film,”the Matrix”.
One of the things that the NHS does well is make trainees feel that there is no alternative. Every step is to delve further and further into the rat race where life milestones like CCT, being a salaried/partner, passing apprasials are all that is available on the horizon. Spending time with like-minded people re-ignited my spirit of adventure and the need to live my ideal life.
Personally, I thought I had done well with my work stints in Peru, Japan (x2), India, Uganda (x3) and France but, around the guys on the WMT course, I felt like I was playing it safe. There are more possibilities if I can face my insecurities and muster up the courage.
Coming off the NHS conveyer belt is terrifying and there are sacrifices that need to be made and there is never the right or correct path. But in the words of one of the lecturers during one of her motivational talks, “Jump and the net will appear.”
I’ve created a list of resources here that I collected from the course (obviously this is not exhaustive) which may whet your appetite until you do the course yourself!
Quest for Adventure by Chris Bonnington
British Standards for Adventurous Activities Outside the UK (written by British Geographical Society – would help if you want to assess the sustainability, safety and purpose of a potential expedition)
Faculty of pre-hospital care (Royal College of Surgeons Edinburgh)
MSc Global and Remote Healthcare – Plymouth University