classroom perspectives

Rx for med school students: Fresh air

Countering the Lollipop Lifestyle

School of Medicine students whitewater raft on the Youghiogheny River.

You'll have to pardon Isaac Schwartz if he sounds a bit like your mother, pushing people out the door to go outside and play. He says it's an important part of medical school.

Schwartz, a third-year student, helped organize a whitewater rafting outing for 170 Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine students and was among 30 students who went caving in the same area of southwest Pennsylvania on a second trip.

"It's a pretty easy sell," he says. "We're taking people to go play outside."

Schwartz last year served as president of the Wilderness Medicine Student Interest Group, whose tongue-in-cheek mission is to "alleviate the symptoms of fluorescent light toxicity by exposing students to sunlight and fun."

But the wilderness group does more than just play outdoors. The core group of five leaders and some others spend time during the school year learning about issues and techniques in wilderness medicine. And the group also sends teams of School of Medicine students to compete in medical wilderness adventures races, known as MedWAR challenges.

The 10- to 14-mile races feature trail running, orienteering, canoeing, climbing and—of course—emergency medicine scenarios, like broken bones or encountering unconscious hikers. A team of second-year students from the School of Medicine finished first at a race in Pennsylvania last year.

med students
The school's medical student team placed first at a 2010 MedWAR race; students go caving in southwest Pennsylvania.

Even the two annual big group outings to Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania—rafting in the fall and caving in the spring—include some scenarios and instruction on emergency medicine in the outdoors.

Kyle McNerney, a second-year medical student who went on the rafting trip, said the guides were experienced in wilderness medicine and made mock wounds and showed how to treat them. That fall trip came at a good time.

"It's nice to take a break from the city, and I found it relaxing to get out into nature for a bit," McNerney says. "The trip happened just after our first block, so it was great to experience something totally different from school for a change."

McNerney has some training as a wilderness medicine EMT and he enjoys hiking and orienteering and has gone whitewater rafting in Colorado and West Virginia a few times.

But Schwartz says many of the students have little experience outdoors and for some the weekend trip is the first time they've been camping. Most are looking for a way to relieve the stress of medical school.

"We build fires, we cook food outside, we don't worry about school so much," Schwartz says. "In fact there's sort of an informal rule that there's no talking about medical school. Just get outside, get out of your comfort zone and be with nature and be with your friends and be who you are. That's important beyond any specific education on any wilderness matter."

Schwartz said that under the leadership of the next group of second-year students, the Wilderness Medicine Interest Group will continue the annual trips and MedWAR adventures.

"We're all people who love the outdoors and think the outdoors are important for everybody," Schwartz adds. "And we've been proven right over and over again."