By Robert Samuelsen

Besides blisters, there are so many things that can happen in the outdoors that require some degree of medical assistance. In some cases, it’s best to seek professional help. For this reason, I carry a satellite phone whenever I’m in remote locations. In most other cases, I’ve had to make do with the resources I had. Here are some of my backcountry first aid stories.

My buddy jumped from a rock like a slalom skier but landed wrong on his right leg. As he fell to the ground, he let out a primal scream that echoed from the summit into the valley below. Instantly, I knew that he had broken his leg and getting him off the mountain was going to be a serious challenge. We had identified this mountain peak from the base and bushwhacked our way to the top. Now I had to carry him out four miles down slope from our current position. I immobilized his leg with a thick stick and bandanas, gave him a sock to gnaw on, and carefully brought him back to my car in a fireman carry. By the time we arrived, I could hardly stand from fatigue and he was pallid from pain. I drove him to the hospital where emergency room staff were able to set the bone and cast his leg.
My daughter ran to the Sawtooth cabin, but tripped, and as she plunged, she got a two-inch splinter deep into her foot. With the nearest hospital two hours away, I made my homemade first aid kit into a mini operating room. The splinter was jagged, but slowly I was able to work it out of the deep wound, with an abundance of cleansing water, a sharp pocketknife, and a pair of pliers. Once I removed the wooden shard, I flushed the wound site with water, and dressed the injury with antiseptic ointment and gauze. Amazingly, it never became infected and healed well.

Over a fast flowing flooded stream in the Smoky Mountains, the rustic fallen log bridge was creating a formidable athletic feat to cross. When crossing risky streams, experienced backpackers know to unbuckle their backpacks first so if they fall in, they aren’t dragged under by a water-ladened pack. Tired and wet from the rain, my hiking mate carefully crossed the slippery bark until a misstep threw him into the water. He was being dragged downstream, hardly able to breathe from the frequent dunking. I raced across the same sketchy bridge to his location and dragged him out of the freezing water. By the time we got to camp, he was mumbling incoherent hypothermic remarks. I quickly got him out of his wet clothes into some dry attire and wrapped him in a sleeping bag until his color returned. It was a scary moment for both of us but fortunately, I was able to reach him and quickly get his body temperature under control.

While in Ecuador, I had an infected wound on my hip, from which emanated a painful red line to my groin and up my abdomen. The line was growing quickly towards my heart so I figured I was going to be a dead man if I didn’t do something. Being far from healthcare, I decided self-surgery was an intelligent lifesaving option. Using my pocketknife as my scalpel, I opened up the wound, removed a large cyst, and packed the wound with iodine. I closed the site with homemade butterfly bandages and by the next day, the red line had faded. Three days later the dreaded red line was gone and the incision was healing. It was a desperate measure for a desperate situation, and not one I recommend, but I think I saved my life.

It probably wasn’t the smartest thing I’ve done, but I started the 40-mile hike with a broken big toe and wicked pre-gangrenous infection. Just two days earlier, the surgeon had operated on my toe to try to squelch the toxin. I did have the forethought to bring lots of prescription drugs and first aid supplies with me for my weeklong excursion into the north woods of Isle Royale National Park. On one of my many rebandage breaks, I decided to soak my foot in the cold waters of Lake Superior. It felt so good! After resting a few minutes and fighting off a menacing red fox, I looked down at my foot only to find three large leaches sucking the infectious venom from my swollen toe. The ooze must have attracted these bloodsuckers because they disregarded the rest of my healthy foot and focused on the unhealthy appendage. After their fill, they swam away, and I rebandaged my foot. When I recounted my story to my surgeon, he laughed out loud and commented that the same treatment in a hospital would have cost thousands of dollars. Mother Nature saved the day!

My entire training in first aid is from my days in Boy Scouts. Every rank advancement requires a new level of first aid training and to earn the coveted rank of Eagle Scout, the First Aid merit badge is required. Even to this day, I carry two band-aids in my wallet – mostly used on my children or grandchildren – and I have first aid kits in all my vehicles. Being prepared with supplies and knowledge goes a long way in an emergency situation. I have scars but no amputations to prove it.

Rob Samuelsen is an executive and adventurer supported by his long-suffering but supportive wife!

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