The Expedition Committee is meeting with expeditionary medicine practitioners to put together the Cowboy Coffee interview series to learn more about the ups and downs of expedition medicine. For this edition of Cowboy Coffee, David Wilson caught up with Dr. Henderson McGinnis. Dr. McGinnis has a long history in expedition medicine ranging from his experiences in the military as well as a whitewater rafting guide for private and commercial expeditions. When Dr. McGinnis isn’t on the river, he is an Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine and the Wilderness Medicine Fellowship Director at Wake Forest University School of Medicine.
How did you first get involved with expedition medicine and how would you recommend a newcomer get started in expedition medicine?
It was actually wilderness medicine and expeditionary medicine that brought me to medical school. It was my time in the military and working as a commercial raft guide that gave me my first exposure to expedition-style medicine. I remember thinking it was going to be super easy: I’d go to medical school and learn to do everything I need to do medically out in the wilderness so people will invite me on these trips and I’m going to have a great time. Then you realize that medical school and residency are super busy. You don’t have the time to get out and do all of these expeditions. But you have days here and there… and the skills you really need for success in expedition medicine aren’t taught in medical school or residency. They’re skills you learn by handling yourself in a wilderness environment. Everyone wants to learn how to build a traction splint out of Nalgene bottles, paracord, and some toothbrushes, but the skills that are most important are basic wilderness life skills: providing yourself with shelter, knowing how to stay warm and dry, and navigating your terrain. These are skills that you can work on when you have a free day here and there and that will make you more capable on expeditions.
What types of expeditions are you involved with?
Before anything else, I was in the military, and that’s its own area of expedition medicine. When I was getting out of the military, I had never been on a commercial whitewater rafting trip, but one of my partners in the military had been a river guide before the army and said, “We should start a rafting company.” So I said, “Okay!” We bought rafts, he taught me how to be a guide, we got our certifications, and started working. We weren’t great businesspeople and our company went under, but we both continued working for other companies as raft guides. I worked as a raft guide on the weekends throughout undergraduate school and the first two years of medical school. Nowadays, my expeditions are in private groups and we mainly apply for permits on rivers out West.