First Ventures: WEMT Student Shares the Value of Experience

Brendan Parker, 2009 WEMT alum, traveled through South America and volunteered in remote clinics along the way.

Remote Medical International® delivers premier wilderness medicine trainings taught by the most experienced instructors in the industry. Whether you’re a doctor or a day hiker, we’ve got you covered with a vast range of courses from introductory to intensive. All of our trainings involve hands-on and realistic scenarios based on sound medical practice, proven delivery methods, and cutting-edge research.

Our students travel from around the world to attend our courses. From military special operations and arctic researchers to industrial workers and outdoor enthusiasts, our courses are comprised of a wide variety of individuals who are truly passionate about remote area medicine. Depending on a student’s level of education and experience, the WEMT can be used as a tool for professional advancement or as the foundation for a new career. For those seeking the latter, a WEMT certification provides access to the entry-level experience necessary to break into the medical field.

Remote Medical International alum Brendan Parker enrolled in our 2009 WEMT without any medical background. He learned alongside military professionals and former park rangers. After completing the course, Parker set out to gain experience. Three years later, after volunteering in South American medical clinics and working on an ambulance in San Francisco, he is scheduled to begin his first year of medical school this fall. Parker spoke with RMI to shed light on the importance of gaining experience as a WEMT. Take a look at the transcript from the interview below for an example of what one student did to launch a life-long career in the medical field:

Some students are nervous about finding  jobs after becoming a WEMT. How did you find your job? 

I began by looking at BLS [Basic Life Support] companies rather than ALS [Advanced Life Support] because there are usually more opportunities there. I researched ambulance companies through a basic Google search and submitted applications to several different places including medical services companies with service vans that pick up people for dialysis and other basic issues. Once I was hired, I found out that a lot of my co-workers started out with a BLS company and moved onto ALS or into fire. It seems like that’s a pretty typical strategy.

What challenges did you face during the job hunt?

The course really prepared me well for the test. I finished early and passed, so that wasn’t an issue at all.  After the course [in Leavenworth], all students are certified out of Washington, so I needed to submit paperwork to get certified in California. I also needed an ambulance driver certificate, but those were the only obstacles.

What WEMT skills have you used in the real world? How did the course scenarios help your real-life experiences?

Honestly, what I found to be the most helpful was learning how to think outside the box. Community college classes or other [non-RMI] EMT courses are very structured and protocol-oriented. They teach to the county or state protocols specifically, but with RMI it was much more comprehensive with a “be prepared for anything” mentality. The course helped me understand that, for example: if I have these two sticks, and I put them here and tape them this way, that can be sufficient for an unexpected problem. Once you have the ability to think outside the box, you can adapt to state protocol or international medicine.

Many students are interested in taking their WEMT skills abroad through volunteer opportunities, how did you organize your trip through South America?

I started in Argentina where I was working on my Spanish, and I decided to travel north to Peru where I thought there would be more opportunities to volunteer in a remote medicine setting. I photocopied all of my certificates before leaving home so I was able to provide those for clinics when they asked about my qualifications. In Cusco, I interviewed with a few different clinics and ended up working at two of them. One was a daycare for autistic children and another was an outpatient clinic where I was giving medical injections, drawing blood, running EKGs, sitting in on doctor consultations, and so on. I was there for four months and was able to hike Machu Picchu and work in a bar during my free time.

As for organizing a volunteer trip, I looked at different Spanish schools where students spend a few weeks learning the language. Some of these same schools also have volunteer placement opportunities where students can go to school in the morning and volunteer in the afternoon. I did that for a week to develop connections in the local medical field and then started volunteering full time. Having some knowledge of Spanish was also extremely helpful in the interview process.

Practicing medicine abroad really showed me the difference between getting a regular EMT and a WEMT.  Working in an environment and using a second language means that you have to understand the general idea of what’s happening in a medical situation. A lot of what you know is thrown out the window because a lot of these clinics don’t have the money to operate in conventional ways. Having my WEMT allowed me to roll with the punches, think outside the box, and gain the experience that I was looking to get.

Tell me a little bit about life on an ambulance as an EMT. What were your typical duties, hours, etc?

I was kind of shocked to see the difference in skills and knowledge between EMTs and WEMTs. When I worked on the ambulance I felt much more prepared when I first stepped into the ambulance than my fellow co-workers who didn’t have the Wilderness certification. They knew the protocols and had a general idea of what was going on, but they didn’t seem to have as much prior exposure to emergency situations compared to what I experienced during the WEMT course. We were working on scenarios every day whereas other EMTs only had these types of experiences every other week. It was great to feel so comfortable and confident with my skills.

Typical duties on the ambulance? BLS is based heavily on patient transport, so most of my work revolved around that. I would typically arrive on the scene and receive reports and updates on a client from nurses or other medical professionals. From there, I would get the patient strapped on the gurney and either drive the ambulance or ride in the back and fill out the full assessment, recollect vitals, and transfer the patient to the appropriate facility. The number of calls really depends on the shift, but we averaged anywhere between one and ten. The company I worked at was really small and not very busy, so I would say we had one call every two hours. Shifts could be anywhere between eight and twenty-four hours in length, but the most common was a twelve or twenty-four hour rotation. It wasn’t always the most exciting work, but it’s an important step in gaining experience in the field.

If you were stuck on a deserted island with one piece of wilderness medicine equipment, what would it be and why?

A suture kit because I feel like I would somehow cut myself. While bartending in Peru I cut my finger on a piece of glass, and I had to figure out how to take care of it without going to the clinic. Since then I’ve always had steri-strips or suture strips on hand.

If you could practice remote medicine anywhere in the world where would it be and why?

I’d probably say Australia because it’d be an awesome country to explore and most of the population is centered in one place so there would be plenty of rural areas that require wilderness medicine. It’s warm and away from primary care which makes it a fun place to explore and provide care.

So it looks like you took your WEMT course in October 2009. Are you signed up for a recert?

I’d like to, but I’m going to have to put it on hold since I’m starting medical school in the fall. Luckily [University of Toledo] has a wilderness club and electives in wilderness medicine, so I’ll definitely get involved there.

What inspired you to go to med school?

I wanted to understand why medical emergencies happen – not just treating them but getting to the source of how the body compensates during injury. The desire to understand why the body does what it does drove me to medical school versus the paramedic and nursing field which I think is much more about stabilizing. I never would have figured that out without first getting experience in the field. I want to be an emergency physician, and I’d like to do that type of work in remote settings. A lot of residency programs have rotations that you can do outside of the hospital, so I’ll look into that.

Anything else you’d like to share?

Just that having a WEMT is such a great starting tool. This past year, being around the school of medicine through my masters program, I listened to other medical students talk, and I actually understood what was going on because of the experience I got through my WEMT. When people would talk about a patient I was able to recall the information we learned, and I felt that I could take my skills to a new level. When they talked about anatomy, I had a general idea through the anatomay portion of the WEMT. Having that base exposure has been extremely beneficial, and I know it will continue to be as I go through rotations in med school. It’s been a great journey so far.