Summer break has just begun, but Gaby Pilson ’17 has already had a memorable experience. Pilson, a member of Central Oneida County Volunteer Ambulance Corps., is a glacier guide in Seward, Alaska, this summer. An active member of the Hamilton Outing Club, she put her EMT training and outdoor leadership experience to use when she assisted in a medical rescue last week.
Last Thursday after a day of guiding, the environmental studies/philosophy major was walking with three clients when they heard someone yelling. “We couldn't see anyone, but were pretty sure that a man was screaming ‘Help!’ so we hiked quickly back up and spotted someone stranded on the trail,” Pilson recalled.
She couldn't leave her clients, so she radioed a senior guide and asked what she should do. He said two guides were heading up to do some training exercises; when they arrived, Pilson directed them up the trail to find the man in trouble.
When she got to the scene Pilson learned that the injured man had been hiking with friends when he decided to go back down the trail and wait for them at the visitors’ center. He lost his footing on ice on the trail and fell 50 feet into a gully.
Based on a medical assessment and the mechanism of injury, Pilson decided that in addition to a large cut on his upper leg, a main concern was the possibility of a major spinal injury. “I did a spinal assessment to see if we could rule that out and have him try to walk down the trail, but he experienced neck pain when we tried to test his neck mobility, so we decided that he was not walking out,” recalled Pilson. “My experience as an EMT helped in this rescue because it allowed me to realize some early signs of a potential spinal injury.”
She alerted other guides that there was a seriously injured hiker and that they’d need the park rangers' help to evacuate him. “Eventually, two park rangers started heading up the trail toward us (we were about 2.5 hours away at a standard hiker pace) and were put in radio contact with us,” Pilson said.
As Pilson relayed information by radio, the rangers hiked toward the group with a litter and medical supplies. When they arrived and assessed the situation, they decided that a helicopter would be needed to get the patient out. The military was alerted and they promptly deployed a helicopter and fuel tanker to the scene. The rescue team put the patient in a vacuum split (a big bag in which a patient is wrapped and air is pumped into so that it hardens and forms a sort of full body splint).
The team did not have enough time to move the patient into the litter and get him to flatter ground before the military arrived, so they quickly cleared the area of loose items so that the helicopter's rotors wouldn't turn them into projectiles when it approached. When it arrived, they first lowered two medics (wearing full climbing gear and boots) to the ground, who then joined the medical team, said Pilson. The helicopter then circled back again to lower another medic and a litter and medical supplies to the ground.
The helicopter came back 20 minutes later after the team prepped the patient for takeoff. They raised the litter and one medic into the helicopter and then separately raised the two other medics into the helicopter and took off for a hospital in Anchorage.
Almost six hours later, Pilson, the rangers and volunteers headed back down the hill.
“Backcountry rescues can be fun because they force you to solve problems with real consequences using medical and wilderness skills, but are also sobering because they remind you that things can go wrong even if you're an experienced backcountry traveler,” Pilson concluded.