WVSOM RHI prepares local student doctor for wilderness rescues


(Photo by Allen Hamrick)
RHI student doctors go over equipment checks on the Black Hawk.

For 17 personnel aboard the Charger 77, a Navy MH060S helicopter, the night of Feb. 18, 2010, was a powerful, yet compelling time.

Approximately 20 hours before the nightmare commenced, these men and women had just completed a training exercise and were returning to Fort Pickett after a short stop at Camp Dawson close to Kingwood, WV.  Eleven Navy, four National Guard and two Marines didn’t make it to their destination. At around 2 p.m., they crashed somewhere in the Appalachian Mountains, in the vicinity of Snowshoe, and went off the grid. The call went out and the search was on for the downed crew. It was about 6 p.m. when the call for help came to the West Virginia Army National Guard;  it would prove to be one of their toughest and most challenging rescue missions.

The crash site was at 3,000 feet elevation with below-freezing temperatures and upwards of four feet of snow on the ground.  It did not look good for the crew as night was closing in.

With snow drifts over eight feet and a 30 mph wind speed, after the site was located, getting to it would be nothing short of a miracle.

The area was heavily wooded and close to three miles from the nearest road. The terrain was steep, and with the snow as deep as it was, ground forces would almost have to tunnel through to reach the survivors. One of the HH-60 helicopters iced up and had to leave the scene.

It was then that the community got involved with local responders, ranging from local fire and rescue to individuals, offering assistance. Sno-Cats normally used to groom ski areas were used to plow roads into the site. Even though they couldn’t reach the crash site, their efforts allowed the rescue teams to get closer to the crew. Once contact was established, it was learned that all aboard survived the initial impact with cuts and bruises and some fractures. With the situation critical already, the weather gave no quarter for the downed crew. They built fires and huddled up to stay warm in circumstances that no doubt were overwhelming and seemingly hopeless.

However, it was not hopeless because men and women who have the intestinal fortitude of lions were on the job. People didn’t just stay in a Holiday Inn overnight and suddenly become great at what they do. They are great because they diligently practice their skills and work hard at actual scenarios that put them in the fire of any situation and prepare them to come out alive.

There was no one individual that could have completed this rescue – it was a team effort from military to civilian, from pilot to doctors, they were all well trained and fearless. Due to the efforts of all involved, everyone that was involved in the crash made it out safe. My hat is off to the pilots who were able to hold position, to the medical personal who were lowered by cable into five feet of snow, to the ones who scaled the mountain, and to the fire and rescue teams. With the growing number of outdoor enthusiasts and the many activities that take place in the mountains of West Virginia, the need for wilderness medicine and mountain rescue is a high priority.

This rescue in the mountains inspired the hearts of many to pursue a life on standby to the service of others. Due to this event, the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine (lead sponsor) and 11 other agencies including the WV Army National Guard, Shavers Fork Fire Department, Marlinton Fire Department, Pocahontas Memorial Hospital, Pocahontas Emergency Services 911 Center, the WV Air National Guard, the US Navy and Snowshoe Resort facilitated a preparedness event for medical students in the Rural Health Initiative (RHI) program that was held at Snowshoe Resort and the surrounding area.

Within RHI, student doctors learn about wilderness medicine and mountain rescue techniques, along with other concerns of rural areas, that will help them if they are ever called upon because medicine in the wild will often times have to get creative.

This training will also help them to think on their feet and be fast to respond. Student doctors also learned the protocol of coordinating between medical professionals during a disaster, survival and rescue in extreme situations, tips to working in extreme environments and communication skills needed between different responding organizations so that the outcomes of emergencies will be in the best interest of all involved. Trainees also had the opportunity to load a victim on the Black Hawk helicopter and fly over the mountains to simulate an actual response.

Also receiving training were fire and EMS personnel, the WV National Guard, physicians, nurses, physician assistants. The need for hands-on training is a necessity, especially here in the Appalachians. More people are getting out and pursuing an active lifestyle, and the need for personnel that are specifically trained, qualified and willing to go into dangerous situations and provide medical support is huge.

The RHI program provides this opportunity to the highly motivated student doctors from the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine (WVSOM).  Janet Hinton, WVSOM RHI program coordinator, ensures that these opportunities are there for future doctors to take advantage of. Army Colonel Steve Eshenaur, D.O., and state surgeon, was the lead organizer for this event and is also WVSOM alumnus and RHI mentor. There were survivors on hand to talk about their experience as well as many of the rescuers from that crash to make it even more real to those training. There were 21 RHI student doctors participating in the event.

If you have a desire to be adventurous and find yourself in a situation where all seems lost, one pearl of wisdom taken from the event is, “There is no substitute for preparedness.” You can be guaranteed that there are people who are ready and will have your back. Our great state has some of the best trained and will always give 100 percent to the public’s safety.

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