Dr. Thomas Marren, MD, isn’t your average family practice doctor. He does more than diagnose; he can also teach his patients how to survive with a stomach wound in the wilderness, or how to stay alive when stranded in the middle of winter.
Dr. Marren is a member of the Wilderness Medicine Society, a group dedicated to teaching tips and tricks for survival in extreme situations.
“It’s important, I think, for everybody to know something about what they can do in an emergency, when care isn’t always available,” Dr. Marren said. “It’s handy to be able to take care of acute things when it is more difficult to get to care.”
Most of the typical survival questions Dr. Marren receives don’t apply to this area, but there are plenty of dangers around that he wants people to be aware of.
“Obviously I don’t go into sharkbites or jellyfish stings… not really too many envenomations you have to worry about up here, people always do ask about that,” Dr. Marren said. “I had kind of picked a couple topics that I thought were more pertinent to the Northwoods… The topics are just so vast.”
One thing Dr. Marren always starts with is what, exactly, is wilderness medicine?
“It’s medicine when you are in a remote or extreme environment,” Dr. Marren said. “You never want to tell people to avoid medical care… but if you are in a situation where definitive medical care is more than an hour or two away, then it’s basically looking at different things that you can do to survive or treat acute medical emergencies.”
“In a nutshell, kind of a combination of a little bit of first responder first aid, a little bit of survival skills, and a whole lot of common sense,” Dr. Marren added.
One of the most important aspects of wilderness medicine is preparation.
“Some of it goes back to the old boy scout motto: be prepared,” Dr. Marren said. “Just some basic things that people don’t always think about.”
As a former boy scout himself, Dr. Marren’s interest stems back to childhood experiences, including a trauma wound involving his father.
“We were in Northern New Mexico fishing, me and my dad, and he got a fish hook in his mouth, of all places,” Dr. Marren said.
They used a pair of old lineman’s pliers to cut the barb off and push the rest of the hook out.
“That was sort of my first experience with hands-on medical care,” Dr. Marren. Later, his experience with boy scouts kept his interest piqued in the survival trade.
As far as being prepared, Dr. Marren recommends certain staples to have on hand as a survival kit. And many are not what you’d expect.
Dr. Marren had many recommendations, but his two most important were also the most simple.
“Duct tape and garbage bags,” Dr. Marren said. “There are a million and one uses for duct tape and garbage bags.”
“Cut a square off and tape it on four sides it closes a sucking chest wound. Somebody has a burn wound or an amputation, it keeps it clean. If you’re in the desert, you can use it to trap condensed water, things that you don’t always think about here,” Dr. Marren said.
Other ideas for a survival kit were safety pins, a lightsource like a lightstick or headlamp, some type of quick-clot packet, which can be found at most sporting goods stores, a basic first aid kid, aspirin and tincture of iodine. Iodine can be used as a disinfectant and water purifier, when diluted.
A source of fire is key. Matches can be waterproofed simply by coating them in wax, and can be an invaluable asset in survival situations.
Some tools fell under the “common sense” category. Keeping a blanket on-hand in the winter, sunscreen in summer, staying covered. Exposure is probably the biggest threat in this area—frostbite and hypothermia in winter, heat stroke and dehydration in summer.
“Try to think multi-purpose. It’s really easy to overpack. One nice adage I always heard was ‘you want it to be a grab-bag, not a drag-bag,’” Dr. Marren said.
Education is also a huge part of being prepared—staying up-to-date on the latest scientific information, and gaining the knowledge to make decisions in tough situations.
“If you have a limb that’s crushed by a boulder and mangled beyond repair, the common recommendations there are no longer to use tourniquets in everyday environments,” Dr. Marren said. “But if you’re two days hike away from somewhere, you’re going to be dead already, so the priorities change.”
The other aspect is learning to think quickly, and get creative. Dr. Marren had several tricks that were surprising, to say the least.
“Feminine hygiene products, actually, in an emergency, a maxi-pad can make a very good abdominal pad for bleeding. They’re not always guaranteed sterility, but if you’re gushing blood out of your belly, it makes a very good abdominal pad,” Dr. Marren said. “Improvisation and thinking on your feet, that’s why I really like this stuff. It keeps me engaged.”
Last summer Dr. Marren gave a presentation at the Ministry clinic in Woodruff, and would like to keep the education going.
“We would like to develop it and see if there are particular interests people have… I would love to recruit some of the other docs in this area,” Dr. Marren said. “One of the reasons I like to stay involved is that I think we try to stress in Ministry, with our staff, is keeping that joy of medicine going, so that it just doesn’t become a whole humdrum nine to five job. Keeping engaged and keeping the joy in doing what you’re doing.”