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Intercampus partnership takes medicine into the wild

The scene -- a band of campers in distress, each one felled by illness or injury or some unknown combination of the two -- would have been enough to jolt the heartbeat of even a seasoned emergency responder.

Actually part of an eight-day Cornell wilderness first responder course, the simulated disaster included a young man sprawled awkwardly -- half in a tree, half on the ground, one leg a pinkish purplish mess of bruises. His friend sat dazed nearby, a gash over one eye.

A few yards away, two young women were also in bad shape. And farther down the path where the brush opened to the creek, a figure lay prone and motionless in the water.

The 10 "hikers" (students in the course) who came upon the scene were not seasoned responders, but they got to work quickly and efficiently. Even an added complication -- the sudden appearance of a wounded and very angry law enforcement officer ordering everyone out of the woods immediately -- didn't upset the steady and soothing business of assessing injuries, moving victims to safety, fashioning bandages and splints and warming wraps.

Within two hours, all 16 students -- the 10 rescuers guiding and supporting the six student-victims (including the calmed and bandaged officer) -- were heading out of the woods to safety.

Which is just the way Alice Henshaw, paramedic and lead instructor for Cornell Outdoor Education's (COE) wilderness first responder course, planned it.

The course, for Cornell students and community members, included lectures and wilderness exercises led by Henshaw (who is certified through Wilderness Medical Associates) and Chris Tedeschi, an instructor and emergency medicine physician at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, the teaching hospital for Weill Cornell Medical College (WCMC).

It's just one of a growing list of collaborative efforts between the medical college and COE. Since 2005 the partnership has linked WCMC students and physicians with COE leaders and Cornell undergraduates for an ongoing, two-way exchange of medical and outdoor education -- and a unique twist on President David Skorton's call to unite Cornell's Ithaca and New York campuses.

The partnership began when Jay Lemery, director of Wilderness and Environmental Medicine at WCMC and an assistant attending physician in emergency medicine at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, heard about seed funding for intercampus collaborations and contacted COE director Todd Miner to brainstorm ideas.

They applied for a grant -- and didn't get it. But the collaboration was too good to pass up. "What we did get was a great relationship," said Lemery.

"It's a sappy story, but it was a perfect match," said Tedeschi, who, with Flavio Gaudio, assistant professor of emergency medicine at WCMC, has been involved since the beginning.

The courses have taken students and instructors to Arizona, the Adirondacks and the woods around Ithaca for practice handling situations from altitude sickness to hypothermia. The scenarios can be vastly different, said Tedeschi, but the critical skill is the ability to improvise -- to assess and treat victims with only the tools at hand.

"It's hugely relevant all over the world," he said -- from wilderness expeditions to urban disaster scenes.

And the hands-on learning -- complete with stage makeup for bruises and real blood -- can seem awkward at first, he said, "but at the same time, it does make a difference. It's all about, what are you doing? Where are your hands? The stuff that sticks in your head is what you held in your hands."

"It was real; my heart was definitely racing," said Ithaca College student Mike Bergeron. "I wasn't sure of some of the decisions I was making. It's one thing to go over what you should do in the classroom; it's a different story out here."

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