Inspired by the Outdoors? Check Out Wilderness Medicine

Special Interest Group Offers Advice and Mentorship

March 12, 2020

By Kate Maloney

David Braun sitting on a rockDavid Braun, PA-C, grew up in Wisconsin, where he spent a lot of time outdoors. “The outdoors feels immediate and real,” Braun says. “The wilderness is its own space on its own terms. There isn’t anything artificial; it’s an objective place to experience. I’ve learned about who I am being in the wilderness – confronting challenges, enjoying the beauty of it.”

Angela WidlerAngela Widler, PA-C, a fellow outdoor enthusiast, shares his sentiments: “Rarely am I more aligned with myself than when I’m active in the wilderness,” she says.

A passion for the outdoors

Braun hiked and skied and camped, and his interest in the wilderness grew as he did. After college, he moved to Colorado, where he worked at an outdoor non-profit. He quickly realized that a desk job was not for him and considered the PA career. It offered both the clinical environment he was looking for, as well as a flexible schedule for him to continue his leisure and volunteer outdoor activities. He left Colorado briefly to attend PA school at the University of Washington but returned as soon as he could.

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Angela Widler skiingWidler believes strongly that being active in the outdoors is an important part of overall well-being. “The wilderness is a place for me to push myself physically and mentally, while having an immense appreciation for my surroundings,” she says. “My favorite parts of the outdoor community are connecting with like-minded people and the opportunity for new adventure.”

PAs and search and rescue volunteers

Search and rescue teamBraun and Widler now work as PAs in the emergency department at the University of Colorado hospital and volunteer with a search and rescue team outside of Denver. They, along with 80 other community volunteers, receive a page when individuals or groups of people are in distress in the wilderness; they respond to avalanches, fallen climbers, weekend hikers who are lost. Based just outside of Denver, the group covers a large area, which includes a number of 14,000-foot mountains. “With amazing outdoor opportunities and a high-population city…we get a lot of calls,” Braun says. Whoever is available responds to the situation. “You have to be ready for the whole spectrum. The wilderness setting is totally unpredictable. We encounter folks who don’t plan properly, but we also encounter others who are tremendously experienced. You never know who is going to need help.”

PAs in Wilderness Medicine

Braun and Widler, both passionate about wilderness medicine, co-founded the PAs in Wilderness Medicine special interest group. Their goal with PAs in Wilderness Medicine is to increase awareness of all types of wilderness medicine and increase the number of professional opportunities for PAs in the field. Wilderness medicine is closely related to a few other fields: remote-site medicine, tactical medicine, and disaster medicine. “If there are PAs who are interested in working in Antarctica, or on an oil rig in the ocean, or as a raft guide, or for the national parks, we want to expose them to the opportunities that are out there. We want to create a network and reach out to PAs, PA students, early-career PAs, or second-career PAs,” Braun says.

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David Braun running in the snowIf you’re looking to get involved with wilderness medicine, Widler recommends volunteering as much as possible. “Some local search and rescue groups allow non-members to attend certain trainings, and that’s an excellent opportunity to learn, practice, or expand upon many outdoors skills.” She also advocates strongly for spending lots of time outdoors!

Angela Widler rock climbingBraun and Widler both hope interested PAs will reach out to the PAs in Wilderness Medicine special interest group. “We can help you get exposure to education and experience,” he says. “Wilderness medicine PAs can make a big difference. Just last month, a person got lost in the mountains outside of Denver. They thought they were going to die. The search and rescue team volunteers came out, spent hours getting to them in the dark February night, and that person survived. We make big impacts in people’s lives, and it’s incredibly rewarding.”

David Braun, PA-C, and Angela Widler, PA-C, are both Emergency Medicine PAs practicing with the School of Medicine at the University of Colorado and co-founders of the PAs in Wilderness Medicine special interest group. Braun can be reached at [email protected]. Widler can be reached at [email protected].

Kate Maloney is AAPA’s senior manager of corporate communications. She can be reached at [email protected].

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