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When the WMS Conference Planning Committee met in March, soon after returning from our Winter Conference in Sun Valley, there was one question on everyone’s mind - can and should we continue to hold our summer conference in Colorado this July? There were so many unknowns as COVID-19 had just begun to hit the U.S. hard, yet one by one, each member gave their opinion with full confidence. It was unanimous – gathering in person this summer for the conference was not a possibility. Looking back, we were incredibly lucky to have a committee that had the foresight to recognize early on the enormous, long-term consequences of this virus.

The big question on everyone’s mind then shifted – how do we make a virtual conference that people will get excited about and will be pleased with when we take away the mountains, the in-person networking, and hands-on workshops?

Turns out, we didn’t need to worry. By the first official day of the conference, we crossed the 900 mark for registrations (compared to a record-breaking 326 the summer before), from at least 27 different countries. From day one through day five, “exceeded expectations” and “the most interactive virtual conference I’ve ever attended” were two comments we heard over and over from attendees.

Jamie Lieberman, a member of our board and official emcee, opened the conference by sharing some lighthearted benefits to attending virtually (you get to sleep in your own bed, no pants required, cheap drinks, no chance of getting COVID, etc.), but it wasn’t until I started chatting with attendees in breakout rooms that I realized the true impact going virtual had on peoples’ lives. Here are just a few of the stories I heard:

  • Fellowship in the Academy of Wilderness Medicine (FAWM) candidates who, despite the pandemic, were able to earn the last of their credits necessary to earn their FAWM
  • A long-time non-North American member who was finally able to afford the conference without all the added expenses due to travel
  • A new father who was able to hold his baby boy in his arms as he listened to sessions
  • An expedition doc off the coast of Antarctica, feeling lonely and craving human interaction, that felt like she was part of a community despite her remote location

The virtual format was exactly what many people needed in this time. It removed barriers and opened up doors that otherwise wouldn’t have been opened. As attendee Seth Hawkins commented, the conference turned out to be a “way to make lemons into lemonade, and hard lemonade at that!!”

Photo from Matshediso Kgamane, originally from Botswana but “stuck” on the island of Sao Tomé and Principe for months due to COVID-19.

After an opening yoga session from the very impressive Ally Dove (former WMS conference scholarship recipient, EMT, and poster presenter who is currently applying to med schools), the main conference kicked off with a bang as we played an interactive trivia game hosted by Jamie, who was completely in his element. We all joked that if he ever wanted to come out of retirement as an anesthesiologist, he had a career as a game show host waiting for him. The entertaining quizzes quickly became an attendee favorite (the hundreds of dollars in giveaways didn’t hurt either!).

On Monday morning, the first lecture was from wilderness medicine legend and WMS founder, Paul Auerbach. Paul recently had a brain tumor removed and it was quickly apparent that the life-saving surgery had greatly impacted his outlook on life. He encouraged everyone to make time for the things they loved, and rather than “just getting through the day,” he emphasized the importance of enjoying what you do. Even if it doesn’t come naturally, admire the beauty in the world around you, stay positive, don’t work too hard, share your passions with others and find a group in the community that you can share your passions with in order to ignite a passion for the outdoors in others.

It was such a pleasure to have Paul speak so candidly. Burnout is a constant battle for healthcare professionals, but especially in these uncertain times (which he encouraged everyone to embrace), it was an important topic with an important perspective. Attendees described it as “brilliant” and “one of his best talks ever.”

As usual, all the lectures delivered at the conference were fantastic (big kudos to Conference Chair Jennifer Dow and Chair-Elect Ian Wedmore), and I wish there was room to share the highlights from each one. From climate change and mindfulness, to tourniquets and ultramarathon medicine, there really was something for everyone.

“The topics were well chosen and the speakers excellent, but what stuck out like a mile for me was the passion of the speakers. Usually, at other conferences, the speakers are very knowledgeable and up to date on the topics they are presenting. This conference's speakers were no exception except for the fact that one could clearly see their obvious expertise in the field but also involvement and passion on the topics they presented!” said one attendee.

One of the many passionate and knowledgeable speakers whom I found particularly enjoyable was Sue Spano. She provided fascinating data comparing three of the most popular hiking trails in America, shared valuable packing tips, and inspired attendees to leave the places they hike better than they found them.

The focus of the WMS on research is one of the major distinctions that sets us apart from other wilderness medicine groups and the virtual format lent itself to a much higher proportion of attendees joining in for our oral and poster presentations. Instead of the usual 30 or so participants, it was exciting to see hundreds of people interested in the latest wilderness medicine research.

One final item of note from the schedule is the 14ers mini-lecture series. The 14ers are specifically designed to give attendees who have not spoken for the WMS before an opportunity to present a brief, 14-minute lecture on the topic of their choice. In order to increase speaking diversity and variety at future conferences, presenters are evaluated based on their content and delivery, and the highest ranking 14er is offered an opportunity to speak during next summer's conference. The session concluded with a poll, and I don’t think the voting has ever been so close. We would be lucky to have any one of the five speakers come back to present in the future, but ultimately Sarah Spelsberg pulled ahead for the win with, “Common Injuries in Wilderness Sports Medicine and Radiographic Findings.”

“It’s been a dream of mine to be even listed on the faculty page at the Wilderness Medical Society Conference and I checked that box. I’m just really honored to be included amongst all of y’all,” she said during her closing remarks.

On Wednesday evening, we had the pleasure of hearing a keynote address from former NASA astronaut Stephen Robinson, PhD. After thirty years of wanting to be an astronaut and 12 rejection letters, he finally landed in space, prompting him to share one of his most meaningful messages, “If you’re not getting rejection letters, you’re not pushing your own envelope.”

Stephen walked us through training, spacesuits, making improvised tools, common medical issues, and various other elements of his experience, plus spent a considerable amount of time addressing questions from the audience. Many attendees commented it was one of the best lectures of the conference and were impressed by how down-to-earth, humble, and likable Stephen was, despite his incredible accomplishments. Attendee Borek Slavid said, “he presented his lecture in a way similar to a bunch of people sitting around the fire after an exciting day sipping Slivovicu. Very relaxed and non-pretentious.” (I learned Slivovicu is Czech plum brandy)

Perhaps what was most incredible about this conference was the level of engagement during each lecture. We’re used to passionate, intelligent speakers, but typically it’s a one-way communication with attendees passively digesting the information. It didn’t take long for everyone to realize this was not the case in the virtual format. Speakers pre-recorded their lectures in the weeks prior to the conference, then the recording was played during their scheduled lecture time. The speakers, who were present during the recording, as well as attendees, contributed to live dialog using the Zoom chat feature, and once it started, it did not stop. Rather than hearing from one expert, attendees could benefit from the perspective and experience of hundreds of others. The collective intelligence of peers could now be quickly and easily disseminated. Rather than making a note to go look something up later, attendees had the ability to simultaneously surf the web and gain immediate access to enriching resources. This enhanced their learning experience far beyond just what the speaker was sharing and was one of the most highly praised aspects of the conference based on the evaluations:

“[I] actually love[d] the virtual format and being able to chat with everyone in real-time (speaker included)! Makes this extra special and fun. I love seeing how others are thinking and enjoying the talks as well.”

Another attendee shared in the active Facebook group created exclusively for attendees to interact, “As someone who tends to migrate toward the corners in big groups of strangers, this conference using Zoom feels very welcoming and, perhaps oddly, intimate.”

Here are a few examples of the things shared through the chat function:

  • Direct links to the WMS clinical practice guidelines and other research being referenced
  • 20+ book recommendations which people could search for and add to their own online shopping cart
  • Suggestions, tips, cases, and even recipes for trail snacks!

In the final round of trivia, we concluded by asking attendees to describe their conference experience in one word. The platform generated a word cloud with the words that were used most frequently appearing the largest. Here’s the section of the cloud with the words used most:

Awesome. I know I’m biased, but I couldn’t agree more.

Throughout the conference, we had request after request to hold more virtual events in the future. We closed out the conference by sharing a big announcement: the upcoming WMS Winter Conference, February 21-25, 2021, originally to take place in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, is also going to be held virtually. Rather than a wave of disappointment, the chat erupted in a show of support and excitement for the decision.

Even taking away the mountains, the human interaction, and the hands-on workshops, we were able to get a giant “room” full of active adventurers stoked about meeting again online, and that is a mountainous win in my book.

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