My work in the outdoors began in college (circa 1996) where I would occasionally serve as an EMT for outdoor summer camps. It was a humbling start to a career in medicine, as I now work in cardiac surgery and critical care. Aside from my daily grind within the four walls of a hospital, I find myself still gravitating towards the wilderness for a sense of professional fulfillment. My greatest satisfaction has been to reach people in their critical times of need within the ranks of Portland Mountain Rescue (PMR). Since joining as a new recruit in 2012, I have worn the hat of president, vice-president, rescue-leader, medical committee chair, and now assistant medical director. Through this journey, I have learned, cried, celebrated, grown, and been challenged in so many ways. Despite all the time we spend in the remote alpine community we serve, most of us also have day jobs. We are an “all volunteer” team— each member bringing a unique skill set to, “save lives through rescue and mountain safety education.” Alongside some amazing men and women, I have been able to marry my front country practice of cardiac surgery and critical care with my backcountry practice of wilderness medicine.
One of the intrinsic challenges of the alpine environment is its remote nature and the limited resources available. Not to say this is a different trait than rescue work in other locales, but there are individual characteristics of every terrain location that demand intentionality in what you bring on-scene for the practice of wilderness medicine. If I can only fit so much in my pack, the questions arise:
- How much does this gadget weigh?
- Will I ever REALLY use this cool toy?
- Will it withstand the cold? The heat?
- How can I recharge the batteries?
Not long ago, I had the privilege of co-authoring an article, Alpine Cardiology, with my friend and climbing buddy, Gabe Webster. In this feature, we highlighted a novel product (KardiaMobile, a product of Alivecor) for obtaining remote ECGs through a device that weighs about as much my toothbrush. This device is so thin, it could almost double up as a bookmark in my personal copy of Vertical Aid, or whatever guide book I brought for the day. I still think it’s a pretty unique device and would consider throwing it in my pack on any adventure. As I write these words, a question arises: “Is there anything I wouldn’t throw in my pack?” My time with PMR as well as my Diploma in Mountain Medicine (DiMM) training with the team at the University of New Mexico, has pushed me to really consider the utility of everything I cram onto my back as I trudge uphill. One thing that I have almost never used is the ubiquitous tool of identity in front country medicine - the stethoscope. I remember the first Littmann I purchased in PA school and how proud I was the first time that I could hang it around my neck. Despite my affections for the bell and diaphragm, it never went in my rescue pack. I simply couldn’t justify the weight for its limited utility.
Over the years as my career matured, so did my auditory acuity. While I was better able to predict stenosis over regurgitation and the likely valve involved, I also found that my perception was also lessening. I had purchased a Butterfly Ultrasound to help my bedside evaluations, but something was still missing. My wife, who is amazingly patient, would repeat words to me if I couldn’t understand. The crackling voices of the rescue radio, however, were a little more challenging. Eventually, the muffled sounds of a masked voice in the OR led me to find an audiologist. I couldn’t believe what I had been missing. Hearing aids had opened up a world of acoustics I had been craving. With the help of my little Oticon buds, I could hear a cockroach fart on the other side of the hospital. The rescue radio had come alive for me. Indeed, I often found myself having to “turn down” the volume.
The stethoscope, however, was still a challenge. I couldn’t wear the hearing aids and the stethoscope at the same time. One manufacturer had implemented a stethoscope “adapter” that was a somewhat dysfunctional experience. Perhaps there was some user error, but I never figured out how to overcome the pain to hear heart and lung sounds. Cue the music of acoustic bliss - entering the ICU in a lab coat pocket was the new Eko DUO— an amplifying stethoscope that can also perform ECGs.