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Rx for safety

Wildnerness medicine classes prepare students for unexpected

Jason Luthy, owner of Sandpoint-based Longleaf Wilderness Medicine, pauses at City Beach in Sandpoint on Oct. 20. (Kathy Plonka)
Jason Luthy, owner of Sandpoint-based Longleaf Wilderness Medicine, pauses at City Beach in Sandpoint on Oct. 20. (Kathy Plonka)
Michael Guilfoil Correspondent

“There are a lot of places you don’t want to be when boulders move,” Sandpoint resident Ammi Midstokke observes in the current issue of Out There Monthly. “Directly over them or directly under them are probably the worst positions, so how I managed to be both of those is beyond my comprehension.

“It does, however, explain how I broke both my nose and my foot in the same whacky moment.”

Midstokke was thankful for one thing when disaster struck at North Idaho’s Chimney Rock: Her climbing partner was Jason Luthy, owner of Longleaf Wilderness Medicine.

“Ammi joked that I was happy to have a chance to practice my training,” Luthy recalled. “But when you’re in a situation – especially with a friend – you just hope you’re going to get them out of there safely.”

Luthy did, with the help of the Air Force and Priest Lake Search and Rescue.

During a recent interview, he discussed what distinguishes his Sandpoint business from the competition.

S-R: Where did you grow up?

Luthy: Eau Claire, Wisconsin (pop. 65,000).

S-R: What were your interests back then?

Luthy: Hunting and fishing with my dad, and a lot of BMX riding – little bikes, big ramps. I got into the competitive biking world.

S-R: What career did you envision for yourself?

Luthy: Back then I wasn’t sure. I ended up going to a two-year college, and while earning my associate’s degree I worked at a summer camp. During one session, two participants with Down syndrome were my responsibility for a week, and that made a big impact on how I viewed education. Later I moved on to Northland College, where I studied outdoor education with an emphasis on programming for troubled youths and people with disabilities.

S-R: Where did that lead?

Luthy: I worked at camps and guided – specifically rock climbing – in North Carolina, Wisconsin, Minnesota. Then I got involved with Outward Bound’s program for at-risk youths. That took me all over.

S-R: When was the first time you had to respond to an accident?

Luthy: All the early injuries were to myself while biking – everything from an amputated finger and internal bleeding to broken bones.

S-R: How about when you weren’t the victim?

Luthy: That involved a motorcycle accident in northern Wisconsin. I was among the first people on the scene, but he was already dead. That was a pretty powerful experience.

S-R: How did you go about launching your own business in 2008?

Luthy: I got in touch with a doctor affiliated with Outward Bound who was also involved with post-Katrina emergency response. He and I worked together applying wilderness medicine to hurricane relief. We got several grants through NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and other governmental agencies to train coastal communities.

S-R: Was the business successful from the start?

Luthy: It was slow at first, as any business is, so I kept other full-time work. Then two years ago I moved up here and took it full time. We grew 20 percent this year, and are on track to grow another 20 percent next year.

S-R: Did you have any business background before launching Longleaf Wilderness Medicine?

Luthy: No, so it’s been a huge learning experience. I had to teach myself accounting software, Web design, marketing, all of which involved a lot of library books and Google searches.

S-R: Do events like the Ebola outbreak impact on your business?

Luthy: Ebola not so much, but natural disasters definitely get people thinking about (wilderness medicine) more. We still work with people down South, and this is hurricane season, so they’re more cued into it. But most of our clients now are recreationists, park rangers or guides. Some need our training to keep current with their jobs, while others are just interested in it.

S-R: When you teach medical students, do you ever feel like they know more than you do?

Luthy: It’s a matter of specialty. In the last two years of medical school, there isn’t a lot of in-person practice time or emergency services.

S-R: Are you affiliated with a medical school?

Luthy: Yes, the University of South Alabama.

S-R: What distinguishes Longleaf from other wilderness medicine programs?

Luthy: We definitely emphasize smaller class sizes. There are several other providers around the country who teach 30-person courses. I prefer seven to 10 students, with half the time spent in a classroom and half outdoors.

S-R: Do you have actors who pretend to be injured?

Luthy: We either have a staff member or a participant take the role of patient. Some scenarios are more complicated than others, so we give the actor-patients a flow chart describing how to react to certain treatments. For instance, if the care provider takes too long, here’s how the situation will get worse.

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

Luthy: Every day is different, with an opportunity to learn something new.

S-R: What do you like least?

Luthy: Some of the administrative tasks. I struggle with QuickBooks.

S-R: Do you have a business philosophy?

Luthy: I challenge my educators to see what each student needs, and then adapt the course to meet those specific needs, so each student retains the information we teach and can apply it in an emergency situation.

S-R: What are the most common injuries one is likely to encounter in the wild?

Luthy: Musculoskeletal injuries, cuts and scrapes, and then gastrointestinal.

S-R: What typically makes bad situations worse?

Luthy: Not having the proper equipment for the terrain you’re going to travel in, or not telling someone where you’re going so they can find you if you get hurt.

S-R: What’s easy to teach and what’s hard?

Luthy: Teaching how to clean a wound or close a wound is easy. Teaching someone to think critically based on what they see is a challenge – to teach information that’s adaptable enough to use in any situation.

S-R: Any memorable student reactions?

Luthy: We had one student who was home alone the day after taking our CPR course when he started choking. He remembered what he’d learned in the course, and gave himself the Heimlich maneuver.

S-R: Are there misconceptions about your business?

Luthy: People often think it’s about holistic healing and chewing on plants, rather than evidence-based real medicine. We teach people what medical tools to take into the wilderness, and how to improvise everything else.

S-R: How often have you been in emergency situations, as opposed to simulating them?

Luthy: Frequently. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in emergency rooms, on ambulances, and with search and rescue.

S-R: What’s the career outlook in your field?

Luthy: Currently, it’s great. We’re hiring a full-time instructor for next year.

S-R: What do you look for in employees?

Luthy: People who are able to focus on what students need rather than telling stories about their own successes in emergency situations.

S-R: How do you relax?

Luthy: A lot of rock climbing. And I still ride bikes – bigger bikes now. I do cyclo-cross, where you take a road bike, put knobby tires on it and ride off-road.

S-R: So you still keep a first-aid kit handy?

Luthy: (laugh) Yes, but as I learn more, my injuries have gotten smaller.

This interview was edited and condensed.

Spokane freelance writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached via email at mguilfoil @comcast.net.
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