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The WMS 2019 Winter Conference on February 23-27, 2019 in Park City had a record-breaking attendance with 275 attendees from seven countries. Among the 175 first-time attendees, three happened to be the WMS’ newest staff members, CEO Renita Fonseca, Conference Director Alicia Kothmann and myself, Marketing and Communications Director Kelly George.

Conferences are one of the few times a year we can put a face to a name, engage in live conversations, and deepen connections. It was our first opportunity to truly grasp the culture of the WMS membership, figure out “what makes them tick,” and determine how to best serve them going forward. Start to finish, the conference inspired, with fascinating people and educational activities. It was a unique and memorable experience that we were honored to play a role in.

The Level 1 Avalanche pre-conference began on Thursday night, February 21, for Diploma in Mountain Medicine (DiMM) candidates. They spent a significant amount of time outside of the classroom, in small group sessions. Hitting the mountain, they tested their beacons, made observations of the mountain, built snow shelters, created makeshift evacuation sleds, and more. The DiMM participants were eager to learn and grateful for the opportunity to be taught by some of the most engaging instructors in wilderness medicine.

The second pre-conference, Advanced Wilderness Life Support (AWLS), began Friday morning, February 22, and also brought people together from across the world to practice emergency care outside of traditional medical environments. Instructors displayed an unmistakable commitment to excellence and passion for what they do. Attendees allowed us to photograph their scenario work, and with the posts on social media, one instructor expressed that this was the first time their family had gotten a chance to really see what they do. It was clear the training and practice they experienced helped develop skills beyond a stand-alone lecture and these individuals would be prepared for medical and traumatic emergencies both personally and professionally.

On Saturday evening, the 2019 Winter Conference officially kicked off with 150 attendees joining together for introductions and reminiscing during the welcome reception. Although the conference was just beginning, first-time attendees would soon find out this isn’t your average conference (just view the conference photos available on Facebook to see more of what we mean). The amount of hands-on education and top-notch faculty is truly unparalleled.

Each day began with a hot breakfast followed by a series of lectures then afternoons off for recreational activities or optional workshops. Almost all of the 11 workshops were sold out before we even arrived on site, and many had waiting lists. Examples of some highly reviewed workshops included Backcountry Hemorrhage Control Options with Brad Bennett and Snow Shelters and Ice Axe Self-Arrest with Todd Miner. It was clear that attendees came to learn and couldn’t get enough of the interesting topics being covered.

On Sunday morning, one of our committee members mentioned to me that they would like to do some research on the happiness quotient of members, believing that it was much higher than that of the average doctor. These medical professionals are combining their profession with their passion. They spend more time outdoors and in beautiful places than probably your average physician, nurse, PA or NP, paramedic or pharmacist. For many of them, their careers feed their sense of adventure.

We quickly got to know members like Program Chair Jenn Kincaid, who showed no sign of limitation to the extent of what she was willing to do for the society. Whether it was taking pictures, assisting speakers, or volunteering to lead a new Adventure CME trip, her passion for the WMS is greatly admired.

Board Chair Bob Quinn presented the State of the WMS and provided updates on the association such as the major governance re-structure and updated bylaws that took place last year, as well as the updates to the WMS Practice Guidelines which are scheduled for later this year. The WMS is clearly in good hands as it was obvious Bob takes the position seriously and makes all decisions based on what’s best for the society.

We heard from many of the wilderness medicine legends, and also from some up and comers like Charles Mize and Elaine Reno. One of the most talked about sessions on Sunday was Antarctic Medicine - Direct from the South Pole with George Wortley. George called in live from location and had everyone on the edge of their seats with his fascinating lecture which touched on everything from leopard seals that eat penguins and divers to the doctor who had to remove his own appendix.

Another attendee favorite was Field-Expedient Celestial Navigation with Steven Carleton. After the two-hour presentation, attendees flocked the podium to learn more.

On Tuesday evening at the WMS Banquet, “An Evening in Nepal”, we heard moving stories from Tony Islas, Eric Johnson, Luanne Freer, and Paul Auerbach about their dear friend Wongchhu Sherpa whose generosity saw no bounds. Wongchhu’s dying wish was to bring healthcare to his hometown in Nepal, and through the silent auction and donations, attendees and faculty,along with the help of Musa Masala, raised more than $10,000 to close the funding gap in phase one of construction of the Wongchhu Sherpa Memorial Hospital. The passion of the speakers and many volunteers who donated items, and helped us set up and tear down for the evening, with no expectation of anything in return, was truly inspirational.

 

Another highlight of Tuesday evening was the recognition of past-president Brad Bennett along with the WMS’ fourth president Blair Erb. Both have made significant contributions to the society and it was an honor to have them in attendance. These two men joined six other past presidents at the banquet, reflecting not only their continued commitment to the WMS, but also the overall good health of the organization.

From members just a few minutes down the road to attendees as far away as Australia, the excitement and hunger for wilderness medicine education was contagious. We heard from member after member who wanted to get more involved, volunteering to review our practice guidelines, create a new program, write an article for the magazine, create a Facebook group or page to further connect, or serve on a committee. We left with a feeling at the end of the conference, that rather than coming to a close, so many things were actually just beginning and there’s so much ahead to look forward to.

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