Thursday, September 27, 2012

Survival is a Medical Issue

In a broad sense, every challenge in outdoor survival is a medical problem. Whether it’s hypothermia, dehydration, drowning, malnutrition, heat stroke, a venomous snake bite, lightning strike, or a cougar attack … whatever it is that causes you to cease to survive is related to a medical problem.  

And that brings me to this: DISCLAIMER — I’m not a doctor. I don’t even play one on TV. My years of service as an EMT notwithstanding, discussion of any medical procedures contained on this site is for information purposes only. Medical procedures change from time to time, and the responsibility rests with the reader to obtain the latest information about emergency medical diagnosis and treatment. The information provided here should not be used to diagnose or treat any medical problem. A licensed physician should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of all medical conditions.

Now that I've said all those words, good luck finding a doctor to perform a diagnosis or treatment when you're 30 miles back in the wilderness trying to save your life or the life of someone else. There is wisdom in obtaining all the emergency medical training you can, then equipping yourself with an honest-to-goodness first aid kit. After all, in an emergency, you might be the closest thing there is to a doctor. Be ready. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

After The Disaster

When the earth stopped shaking, then the disaster began.

That might sound counterintuitive — wasn't it the earthquake that was the disaster? Well, not really. The fact that the earth shakes, or a tsunami washes ashore, or a wildfire scorches the landscape, or a hurricane rakes the shoreline — pick any natural event you like, none of them, in and of itself, is a disaster.

Were these events to take place in total isolation from human beings, nobody would even notice. The only factor that changes an earthquake (or any other event) into a disaster is the impact it has on a population.

So, back to the lead sentence — when the earth stopped shaking, then the disaster began. It was the presence of a human population in the area of the quake that was deadly. And those who didn't die or get injured in the few moments the earth actually shook … they were the ones for whom the disaster was just beginning.

The report out of China, after the moderate 5.6 quake that killed nearly 100 people and injured nearly 1000, is that almost all of the 110,000 residents of the town nearest the epicenter were forced out of their homes into evacuation camps that were severely undersupplied with emergency shelters.  One official is quoted as saying, "They are living in the open air now. We are in dire need of tents and quilts. We only received 2,200 tents. Many people have no quilts and are not living in tents."

Keep in mind that this was a fairly mild earthquake. In 2008, a quake with a magnitude of 7.9 left 90,000 dead or missing. This recent temblor was minor by comparison. And yet, it left tens of thousands of people homeless and without the basic necessities of food, water, clothing, and a place to sleep.

It doesn't take much to disrupt the normal rhythm of life. And this event should serve as a wake-up call for all of us to take care of our own personal survival preparation.

  • Have a suitable tent to use as an emergency shelter, in the event our primary shelter is damaged beyond livability.
  • Have a secure place to go when it's time to evacuate.
  • Have a safe water supply stored away for use if the normal supply is disrupted.
  • Have an emergency supply of foods that require little to no preparation, and deliver high levels of nutrients and calories. 
  • Have a personal medical aid kit that you can grab quickly and take with you if you have to run. In the kit, have a supply of fresh prescription medications for any personal needs, a backup pair of eyeglasses (if needed), hearing aid, etc. 
  • Figure out alternative forms of transportation, in case you can't simply hop in the car and drive away. 
  • Work out a family survival plan, in case you're separated when the big event happens. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Fear Causes Death

In my previous post, I talked about the power of The Will to Live as a survival tool. The will to live is a "power of positive thinking" sort of thing that can keep you alive in some circumstances, beyond all logic and reasoning. But there is also a "power of negative thinking" that we ought to examine and understand, because it is very real and very deadly.

An example of this can be seen from an incident report of the recent 7.6 earthquake in Costa Rica, where, remarkably, only 1 death was reported.

Even though 7.6 is a fairly powerful quake, there was limited structural damage reported throughout the country. That's because Costa Rica adheres to strict building codes. Olman Vargas, president of the national College of Architecture and Engineering said, "…we comply with all global standards — the same as California and Japan, places well known for their high tectonic activity."

But even though the buildings came through the quake in pretty good shape, the emergency rooms were quickly packed with people who had minor injuries or were suffering from shock. Douglas Salgado, a geographer with the country's National Commission of Risk Prevention and Emergency Attention, reported that a landslide covered part of a highway, and some hotels and other structures suffered cracked walls.

Hojancha city official Kenia Campos reported that the temblor "knocked down some houses, and landslides blocked several roads. People were really scared."

Being really scared can have terrible consequences. And in fact, the single death caused by this earthquake was attributed, not to blood loss or broken bones, but to fear. Red Cross worker Carlos Miranda reported that the death was confirmed to be a man who "died of a heart attack caused by fright."

So, fear can have bad consequences. Even if the fear doesn't get so extreme that it causes you to die immediately, it can kill you slowly. I'm not talking about the long-term physiological effects of stress (although that is also a valid point), but the fact that fear can paralyze an individual and cause him to fail to take the proper action to save his life. Think of a deer in the headlights.

Survival is all about making the right choices and taking the right actions at the right time. You have to be able to figure out what is highest on the survival priority list at the moment, and then do whatever it takes to handle that priority. If you're stuck in a fear-induced rut, you aren't going to make it.

Equipment is convenient, if you know how to use it correctly. But knowledge is even better than equipment.

Knowledge is power, so learn all the stuff you can. You know what they say, "The more you know, the less you need."

Experience is even better than mere knowledge, because it convinces you that you can actually put into action the things that you know.

Gain more experience, and fear fades away.

The Will To Live

Your mind is the most powerful survival tool you have. In some circumstances, whether you live or die depends upon the strength of your will to live.

Certainly, there are situations in which your mind has no influence on your survival. Falling off a cliff and smashing on the rocks a few hundred feet below, catching a bullet in the wrong place, a violent accident involving massive blood loss — those are things your mind can't overcome and keep you alive. But there are plenty of situations in which the attitude (mindset) of the survivor makes all the difference.

Consider for a moment the story of Ryan Harris. This 19-year-old Alaska fisherman almost literally "willed" himself to live through what most definitely was a deadly situation. Harris and his friend Stonie "Mac" Huffman were salmon fishing in the open ocean a few miles off Cape Edgecumbe when they were overcome by large waves that capsized their 28-foot aluminum boat. Both men immediately ended up in the water before they could send a mayday to the Coast Guard, or climb into their survival suits (mandatory equipment for each individual on Alaska commercial fishing vessels, but not required to be worn at all times).

The men climbed onto the overturned hull of the boat, but apparently the boat later sank and the two were left treading water. Luck was with them, though, and they found some empty fish totes (4'x4' plastic bins for storing fish on ice until they can be delivered to a processing facility) that had been washed overboard. Huffman helped Harris climb into one of the totes to use as a life raft, but was unable to climb into a tote himself, so he used a lid as a flotation device to stay afloat.

Huffman located a survival suit, floating amid the debris from their boat. For 2 hours, he struggled to get into the survival suit (a near impossible feat when you're in the water), and during that effort he lost hold of the tote lid. Sometime during the 26-hour ordeal, 8-foot waves caused Huffman and Harris to drift apart.

"I never thought I was going to die," Harris later told reporters, "but I was worried about Mac." His fishing buddy drifted through the night until he reached a shoreline about 25 miles northwest of Sitka.

Throughout the night, Harris sang songs including Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer, and Row Row Row your boat, to keep his spirits up. "I gave myself a pep talk," he said. "I kept repeating, I'm Ryan Hunter Harris and I'm not going to die here."

"It's truly a miracle they survived," said Sitka Mountain Rescue Director Don Kluting. Without the ability to call for help, the two men were fortunate enough to have friends who called to report them missing. That's when the Coast Guard launched a search and rescue mission that eventually located the stranded men.

As I studied the report about these two survivors, I was impressed by the power of their will to live. Neither man gave up. They struggled on against the odds. For all they knew, nobody was going to come looking for them. They decided to do whatever it took to keep themselves alive.

Maybe that's the Alaska spirit — it is, after all, a place that doesn't suffer wimps and princesses.

Maybe it's the spirit of true outdoorsmen (and women) who understand the risks of the rugged life and don't expect someone else to wipe their nose.

Whatever it is, these men had it. Above all, they possess the will to keep on trying, never say die, never lie down and quit.

My hat is off to them.

And also to their friends who reported them missing after an appropriate period of time. And to the courageous men and women of the Coast Guard who risk their own lives to go in search of others who may be in trouble.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Bear Attack

How many times do people need to be reminded that life is not a Disney movie?

In those family-friendly films, people don't end up in the digestive tract of the warm and fuzzy wildlife that seem so cuddly you almost want to name them and take them home where they can sleep on the sofa.

But real life isn't like that. Take for example the case of Richard White of San Diego who was hiking in Alaska's Denali National Park when he pressed his luck by getting too close while photographing a grizzly bear. That poor fellow ended up inside the griz.

Park officials have a standing safety policy stating that visitors must maintain a separation distance of at least a quarter-mile from the bears. But evidence from photographs recovered in his camera show that White was within 50 yards of the bear when the attack took place.

White's body was discovered after some hikers came across an abandoned backpack and bloody clothing alongside a river. They notified park rangers who conducted a helicopter search and located the body at a grizzly "food cache" about 150 yards from the scene of the attack. The bear was sitting on top of White's remains.

Park superintendent Paul Anderson said, "Over the years, and especially since the 1970s, the park has worked very diligently to minimize the conflict between humans and wildlife in the park. We have some of the most stringent human-wildlife conflict regulations in the National Park system, and I think those are largely responsible for the fact that there hasn't been a fatal attack."

Did I mention that Richard White made history by being the first human fatality caused by bear attack in Denali National Park? Of course, outside the park there have been numerous lethal encounters with bears. That's because people get too close to these epic predators.

Prior to being issued a permit to hike in Denali, all backpackers receive mandatory bear awareness training that teaches them to stay at least a quarter-mile away from bears. Records show that Richard White received that training, but apparently decided to ignore it.

Maybe he didn't see the movie "Grizzly Man" about Timothy Treadwell who thought he could make friends with the bears if he just acted docile and pretended to be part of their community. Oh … in case you didn't see the movie, it ended badly. Grizzly man and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard ended up in the digestive tract of the bear. For the record, Treadwell had been warned repeatedly by park officials (Katmai National Park) that his actions were unsafe.

Deb Liggett, superintendent at Katmai National Park told the Anchorage Daily News, "At best, he's midguided. At worst, he's dangerous. If Timothy models unsafe behavior, that ultimately puts bears and other visitors at risk."

It's easy to understand how a bad example endangers others who might think that kind of behavior is okay. But, how does it put the bears at risk? Simple — the "offending" bears are killed.

What can we learn from this?

Cripes, I hope I don't have to spell it out yet again.