BILLINGS – Providing medical services inside Yellowstone National Park presents challenges unlike most other places.
Unusual medical emergencies may include a bison goring, grizzly bear mauling or burns caused by thermal features and hot pools. In the winter, paramedics could be called to respond to injuries from a snowmobile crash.
The park is also remote, hours away from a hospital. Yet during peak summer months traffic can be heavy and is often slowed or halted by gridlock. Tourists frequently stop their vehicles in the middle of the road to view wildlife. Bear or bison jams may slow emergency responders as they try to reach or evacuate patients.
Approximately 4 million people annually visit Yellowstone. During the 2019-2020 seasons, the park recorded more than 1,400 calls for medical response.
Kevin Grange worked as a paramedic in Yellowstone in 2014 and has also provided his expertise to Yosemite and Grand Teton national parks. These tours of duty provided fodder for his recently published book, “Wild Rescues: A Paramedic’s Extreme Adventures in Yosemite, Yellowstone and Grand Teton,” in which Grange provides insight into the parks’ medical machinery.
“My hope is for ‘Wild Rescues’ to provide readers with a sense of the rigorous job that remote and rural first responders endure and to increase awareness and appreciation for our national parks and the dedicated people who work there,” Grange wrote in the author’s note to his book.
The 46-year-old works as an EMT for the Jackson Fire Department in Wyoming, while still providing search and rescue assistance to the National Park Service in nearby Grand Teton.
It was while working in Grand Teton that Grange heard about one of the most unusual accidents he recounted in his book. A motorcyclist was hit by a pronghorn after the car in front of the biker struck the animal and it flew into the air, landing on the cyclist. The rider suffered two broken collarbones, a hip and a fractured spine.
Grange said he responded to a similar call in Yellowstone after a motorcyclist riding at night crashed into a bison, its dark fur making it difficult to see.
“After the Sturgis (South Dakota) motorcycle rally, over a three-day period, we had to call six life flights,” Grange said, sometimes because the park’s narrow roads and lack of shoulders provided little room for the driver’s eyes to wander.
His most unusual call in Yellowstone was to an unresponsive scuba diver in the Firehole River. It appeared the diver had a panic attack while underwater and fainted.
More frequently, crews respond to mundane medical emergencies. A common affliction is someone with a medical condition that becomes amplified by the park’s high altitude, said William Belk, clinical education manager for Air Methods Inc., which staffs a West Yellowstone helicopter base.
“People underestimate the effect altitude has on them when they hike,” said Coleen Niemann, director of marketing at Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center in Idaho Falls.
Most of Yellowstone’s trauma patients are evacuated to the Idaho hospital. That’s partly because the facility has the only burn center in the region, able to treat injuries caused by the park’s thermal features, as well as a trauma center.
Although Yellowstone has three medical clinics at Lake, Old Faithful and Mammoth staffed by concession provider Medcor, physicians and paramedics rely on air ambulances for severe injuries or medical complications. For Yellowstone, the Air Idaho Rescue base in West Yellowstone provides quicker response times for medical emergencies, as long as the weather cooperates.
“Air service is very critical for a number of reasons, most importantly because time matters,” Niemann said.
Quick response time is also important for first responders, she added, which the hospital’s staff works with in the region. Since some injuries occur in the backcountry, where it can take hours to evacuate a patient, proper initial care is vital to saving lives, Niemann said.
“The faster we can get somebody to a hospital, the better,” Belk said.
Other medical emergencies arise when tourists forget or chose not to take their prescription medicines, such as water pills for high blood pressure, Grange noted. Dehydration is another common ailment. Those calls regularly come between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., when the bad choices afflict tourists staying in one of the park’s hotels, he added.
“We probably ran three to eight calls a day” for such ailments, Grange said.
Out of the three parks he’s worked in, Grange said Yellowstone involved more medical calls, Yosemite featured a lot of traumas – such as people falling while rock climbing – and Grand Teton was a blend of the two and also included drownings, because river rafting and kayaking are popular on the Snake River.
During down time, Yellowstone paramedics also stepped up to help with calls for missing children in the crowds at Old Faithful Geyser as hundreds of tourists crowded the boardwalk to watch it erupt, Grange said. He helped direct traffic and people when there were bison and bear traffic jams, and even removed a dead elk from alongside a road to prevent predators from visiting.
Although tasks could be strange and the hours long and physically demanding, Grange said he got to live and work in beautiful places and talk to tourists from all over the world. In addition, every day’s duties were different, and there was a camaraderie among the seasonal workers akin to a tribal bond that fostered potlucks, barbecues and campfire gatherings.
“There was a sense of connection and community,” Grange said.
Part of the connection included frightening tales from other park workers that Grange recounted in his book, including:
• A California man who dove into a hot spring to rescue his dog. When he crawled out his skin sloughed off and his eyes were “fried like egg whites.”
• A young girl who slipped and fell 500 feet into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
• A man who suffered massive neck, head and chest injuries after being gored by a bison.
• The one “behemoth lethal to both man and animal” was “1-800-RV-4-RENT. There were more accidents involving RVs than any other vehicle in the park.” Fortunately, most were minor collisions in the parking lots.
• The spookiest place in Yellowstone is where law enforcement rangers and the maintenance crew dumps wildlife that has died. “The grizzlies hear the truck in the distance, and they come running. You never see the bears, but you can feel their eyes on you.”
“At the end of dinner each night, I always had the same thought: Yellowstone’s many wonders are matched only by the many ways the park can kill you,” Grange wrote.
If people are still inspired to visit national parks after reading his book, Grange said he hopes they will “be more responsible and not become a patient.”
“I went into the Park Service thinking I’d have to protect the people,” he said. “But once I was there I realized it was more about protecting the four-legged animals from the two-legged ones.”
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