To The Rescue:
Alumnus Jason Williams trains first responders to reach sick and injured in the wilderness
By Leslie Linthicum
A rock breaks loose in the Sandia Mountains, shattering the arm of a climber below. A hiker aiming for a mountaintop is overcome by high-altitude pulmonary edema. A backcountry runner loses track of time, gets stuck in a forest after dark and hypothermia sets in.
The response to these and other outdoor emergencies has long been to scramble a search and rescue team to hike, ski or helicopter in and hurry the victim out to where high-level medical care is waiting.
Jason Williams (BS '07) doesn't think that makes sense.
"You might have the medical equipment and know-how, but you can't get out of the parking lot. Or you might be able to get to the person, but you don't know what to do," he says.
Williams, who trained as an emergency medical technician at UNM and ran the university's EMS Academy for years, now heads up UNM's International Mountain Medicine Center, a program that aims to train doctors, nurses and paramedics in mountaineering so they can administer high-level medical care as soon as the rescue team gets there.
"Our goal is to bridge those skills together," Williams says.
UNM is the only American university to offer an International Diploma in Mountain Medicine and it attracts medical professionals from around the world to its nine-day field programs, where participants learn how to wield an ice axe and sleep in a snow cave, how to rappel from a hovering helicopter and how to practice medicine while roped up on the side of a cliff or in an ice crevasse.
The diploma program includes 50 hours of online lectures and two of the field programs, which use the Sandias, Enchanted Tower near Datil, the Grand Canyon's South Rim and the southern San Juan Mountains as classrooms. The class that started the program this January includes an Australian and a Chilean. Physicians from Italy, Brazil, Slovakia and the Netherlands have also come to UNM for training.
One of the draws is the ability to practice in some high mountains and excellent rock-climbing routes. Another is that the UNM program is based out of an emergency department with a Level I trauma center and teaching hospital with professionals who practice the latest critical care standards.
Williams has developed a reputation in the field; last year he was asked to give a refresher course in medical response to 20 members of the American Mountain Guides Association—the most elite climbing and mountaineering guides.
"Jason is an internationally recognized expert in mountain medicine and the UNM Health Sciences Center is so incredibly lucky to have him on our faculty," says Steve McLaughlin, M.D. the chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at UNM.
For Williams, a former paramedic and lifelong rock climber, spending his workweeks immersed in studying the efficacy of different harnesses, ropes or carabineers or developing curricula for the on-site administration of blood replacement or the treatment of frostbite is a dream come true.
"I'm super excited," says Williams, 31. "My passion has always been the mountains and rescue. With this program, all of the skill sets that I've developed come together."
The son of a volunteer firefighter, Williams remembers waiting in the car at trailheads while his father helped on search and rescue teams. In high school he worked at the Sandia Peak Tramway and learned rock climbing. Since earning his bachelor's degree in EMS, Williams has taught at UNM and has climbed around the world.
"I've been in some hairy situations climbing," Williams says. As we talk he is nursing a hairline fracture of his femur from a fall on the trail. He knows that mountains can be unforgiving in all seasons and that medical episodes, as well as injuries, can become much more serious the longer it takes for medical care to arrive.
Williams ticks off what he and other mountain rescuers often see: "Head injury. Trauma. Broken bones. Cardiac arrest. Heat illness. Altitude illness. People become stuck or lost. They slip. They fall. The mountains have a great amount of danger in them."
The International Mountain Medicine Center also offers a rotation in wilderness medicine to fourth-year medical students and collaborates with an Italian university every two years to bring European physicians to the U.S. to train. And it runs its own search and rescue outfit, the 10-person Reach and Treat team.
Because they are affiliated with UNM Hospital, Reach and Treat rescuers can order and carry in blood or medication that helps blood clot, which can mean the difference between life and death for someone suffering a massive hemorrhage. Even the ability to prescribe and deliver pain medications can be a game changer for someone stranded with a broken bone, Williams says.
"You reach them," Williams says, "but then it may be a six-hour carry out. In that situation, pain medication can be very important."