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Wilderness EMS Externship celebrates 10th anniversary with expansion
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Wilderness EMS Externship celebrates 10th anniversary with expansion


A local educational program for medical school students is expanding after a decade in practice.

The Carolina Wilderness EMS Externship, a month-long medical school class brought in collaboration with Hawk Ventures, Western Piedmont Community College, Carolinas HealthCare System Blue Ridge and Wake Forest University’s Department of Emergency Medicine, now offers a more comprehensive look at rescues.

“We’ve always known that we were called the Carolina Wilderness EMS Externship, and we’re inhabiting that space even more explicitly now, so we’ve expanded our programming to be more statewide and region-wide,” said Dr. Seth Collings Hawkins, founder of the program. “The externs for this year have been experiencing that and testing it out for us and it’s been fantastic.”

The expansion has taken the externs for a week-long technical rescue training from the National Park Service in the New River Gorge in West Virginia, along with trips to state parks around the area and the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Also introduced in the expansion was a coastal module that saw the externs get certified on Friday in emergency oxygen for diving injuries at Divers Alert Network in Durham before driving down to the Pamlico Sound.

The externs will spend this week working their way up the Outer Banks, learning how wilderness medicine is delivered there.

“(It’s) really remote and really very similar to the kind of things we talk about here as far as paramedics and physicians being tasked with taking care of patients for a long time or very far away from traditional, hospital-based medical care,” Hawkins said.

They’ll also link up with the U.S. Coast Guard and other rescue organizations along the coast, he said.

“What I love about it is giving more diversity of experience to the externs,” Hawkins said. “We were on the French Broad River, we were up at Grandfather Mountain where they just had a number of lightning strikes, we’ll be at the coast, we’re going to be training with DAN, we were out at Gorges State Park … I think any educator appreciates giving students the broadest possible amount of experiences so that wherever they take the skillsets they’re learning, they’ll find the closest match to what they’ll actually be doing.”

This year’s externship brought two medical students to Burke County.

Jay Zhang, a Cary native, is a student at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.

While he was at UNC as an undergraduate student, Zhang started volunteering as an EMT at South Orange Rescue Squad and went onto join the technical rescue team there. He also served as an EMS lieutenant and captain as part of the EMS division, and still responds to rescue calls with the organization.

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He said it has been eye-opening to revisit some of the places he has enjoyed recreationally, like the Nantahala River and the Linville Gorge, and getting to talk to park rangers, emergency services personnel and learning more about what goes into responding to emergencies in those areas.

“It’s just a completely different point of view in terms of the risk management and the level of care that is able to be projected into these wilderness settings,” Zhang said.

Zhang’s journey to wilderness EMS has been a long-term progression.

“I started EMS work while I was in undergrad and saw people coming before me, volunteers coming before me, go to medical school, become involved in wilderness medicine, and then go off to do great things and finally come back to North Carolina as practicing physicians,” Zhang said. “They were great mentors to me.”

He previously got a taste for Burke County from another of Hawkins’ educational programs for medical students. That further piqued his interest in pursuing wilderness medicine.

“I think in my early years as a med student, I was involved with a wilderness program at Lake James run by Dr. Hawkins where we got this great seminar on wilderness topics, we got to camp out for a day, and we got to build great teams and meet awesome people throughout Burke County,” Zhang said.

Lindsey Fell, a student at the Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine in Portland, Oregon, is making her first trip to North Carolina and the southeast United States as an extern.

She’s spent time working in ski patrol in the Teton mountains in Wyoming, spending summers taking medical school prerequisites in Montana. She served as co-director of the avalanche program for the ski area where she worked in her last three years there.

“In this externship, we’re getting real time, hands-on experience with concepts that are often in books or in classrooms, so getting to talk to folks with mountain rescue teams, with state parks superintendents and rangers, and actually hear about their real experiences, is really awesome for just giving us an idea about what types of circumstances and issues we can expect as future medical directors,” Fell said.

She had wanted to be part of the program for a few years since she started medical school.

“Before attending medical school in Oregon, I lived in a small, mountain town in Idaho that’s not unlike Morganton — it’s diverse, it’s very friendly, it’s surrounded by lots of outdoor activities — and there, the search and rescue and the EMS agencies were really positively impacted by excellent emergency medicine doctors and medical directors,” Fell said. “One of my main reasons in going to medical school was to learn how to be a good emergency medicine and EMS physician.”

The Carolina Wilderness EMS Externship program checked all the boxes on Fell’s list.

“The campfire conversations we’ve had about medical direction and its place and its role in wilderness medicine, this is priceless education that I don’t think we can get elsewhere,” Fell said.

Chrissy Murphy is a staff writer and can be reached at or at 828-432-8941. Follow @cmurphyMNH on Twitter.

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