Story and Graphic by Tosha Baker
A fun camping trip became a matter of life and death within seconds for 19-year-old Philip Bledsoe.
While hiking at Pilot Knob, a state nature reserve in Powell County, Bledsoe slipped and fell 20 to 25 feet off a cliff. He sustained several serious injuries including head trauma, a broken jaw, a few fractures in his spine and a torn ACL.
“The next thing I remember is waking up in a van transporting me from UK to Cardinal Hill for rehabilitation,” Bledsoe said.
Though he may not remember the ordeal, it took three hours and thirty minutes after search and rescue received the call to get Bledsoe airlifted and on his way to the University of Kentucky medical center.
Fortunately his injuries allowed the time to get to medical attention, but not every person who falls in the wilderness can afford to wait that long to receive care.
For this reason a non-profit organization called RedSTAR (Search Treat And Rescue) is in the works. This organization would create a wilderness unit made up of both EMS and search and rescue team members.
In most circumstances when someone is injured in a place like the Gorge, search and rescue teams have to carry them out to receive medical attention because EMS members do not have the proper wilderness training to go into the woods.
In Bledsoe’s case, search and rescue team members had to set up several rope systems, fight fatigue due to the steepness of the trail and keep an eye out for copper heads.
“It requires specialized equipment, skills and knowledge,” said David Fifer, coordinator of RedSTAR, part time paramedic and full time EMC lecturer at EKU.
Even something as simple as the shoes ambulance drivers wear are unsafe in the Gorge’s landscape.
Fighting the dangers just to get to a patient is only the first part. Treating a patient in the wilderness is different from treating them in an ambulance, Fifer said. There are things to consider such as bacteria, temperature, different doses of medicine and the period of time the patient will need to be treated in the outdoor environment.
RedSTAR would certify all members of the wilderness unit in Advanced Wilderness Life Support, a course designed to teach experienced health care providers how to apply their skills to patients in the wilderness. They would also take a course called Basic Search and Rescue and become technical rope technicians.
The organization would be recruiting healthcare providers such as physician assistants, nurses and paramedics.
Dr. Walter Lubbers is co-coordinator of RedSTAR, an emergency room doctor at the University of Kentucky Medical Center and medical director for Powell County Search and Rescue. Lubbers said search and rescue can’t legally practice certain medicines, so having a wilderness unit with them could save an injured hiker four or more hours of pain or worse.
“It will get them care faster than they were getting it before,” Lubbers said.
Some of the funding for RedSTAR would come from wilderness organizations, grants and potentially local county governments. Lubbers said the organization would also be open to a partnership with the University of Kentucky.
Previous conversations have led to potential help with equipment and training from UK. Fifer said nothing has been agreed upon yet but he is optimistic about the partnership.
If UK partners with RedSTAR, the organization could provide wilderness training for UK residents and medical students. This collaboration would set up the potential to improve medical care in the Gorge area, Fifer said.
The Powell County fiscal court unanimously approved phase one of constructing the non-profit organization, which creates a temporary internal wilderness unit in Powell County. The temporary wilderness unit will take about eight weeks to assemble.
Mike Sparks, coordinator of Powell County Search and Rescue, said RedSTAR could benefit the team from a medical perspective. Right now, someone injured would be in pain until search and rescue members could get them to EMS, he said. This trip can take two hours or more.
“There’ve been many times we’ve had to carry people out with their pain level being at a 10,” Sparks said.
In order to make this a regional solution, the organization will need to form partnerships with other counties associated with the Gorge. Fifer said this includes Wolfe, Menifee, Lee and Estill counties.
Phase two will be to create the non-profit organization and potentially form a partnership with UK. Fifer estimated that phase taking six to eight months.
Until RedSTAR is fully functional, fall victims in and around the Gorge must be carried out to EMS. If they are in a lot of pain or have life threatening injuries, it could be a while before complete medical attention is received.
Bledsoe’s case was one where the quick actions of search and rescue was enough. Though his injuries will take a year or more to heal, he is fortunate enough to be here to offer advice to those camping and hiking in the wilderness.
“Stay safe,” Bledsoe said. “Never go by yourself and preferably go during the day, and watch your step.”
Click to enlarge graphic below.
Photo courtesy of Powell County Search and Rescue