PIONEERING WILDERNESS MEDICINE IN AFRICA
In Africa, particularly South Africa, outdoor recreation and extreme sports are on the rise, a trend that calls on the wilderness medical industry to respond.
Walther Meyer (qualified mountain guide and mountain skills instructor) and Ross Hofmeyr (Specialist Anaesthesiologist and Expedition Doctor) are two individuals who have done just that. In 2002 the duo started Wild Medix, a wilderness medical care company that recently became the first African company to partner with the Wilderness Medical Society (WMS), a world leader in the advancement of wilderness medical care.
Ross had the idea of creating a wilderness medical care company, mostly as a vehicle for doing what he loves: expeditions to wild places. He became involved with mountain rescue as a medical student, initially drawing on his experience from a climbing background and then more medically as his training progressed. It was this involvement in mountain rescue that led him to Walther.
By the time he met Ross, Walther had a strong guiding background, had worked as a volunteer paramedic and was already running his own mountain guide service and mountaineering school successfully. He recognized that there was a lack in providing training for people going into the wilderness, particularly as the extreme sport market was growing. As Ross says, "Many of these events were requiring medical standby, but the guys were waiting in an ambulance at the bottom of a hill, totally unequipped to go into the field."
It was during conversation in a restaurant that they recognized the similarities in their visions and that it made sense to join forces. Their different backgrounds turned out to be a decided advantage. "It was quite entertaining," Ross says. "When we started we had no resources other than the two of us and the kit bags we’d put together, with each job acquiring one or two extra pieces of equipment. We took Walther's business bakkie and an old one I had at the time, branding them with magnetic Wild Medix signs. We tried to differentiate ourselves by not being the guys waiting at the side of the road, but instead being the guys capable of putting on a backpack and going into the mountains to look after people."
The company started out with standbys and presenting Wilderness First Aid (WFA) courses to acquaintances in the industry. At the time there was no WFA syllabus in South Africa and they drew quite heavily from the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) curriculum in America, taking care to present content in line with the international standard.
Wild Medix gradually grew a list of clients who kept using their services, including an Antarctic logistics company, whom they've since provided with equipment, kit, advice, medical screening, consulting services and even a number of repatriations.
“We’ve shifted our focus to the expedition side, which is why we got into the industry to begin with. Wild Medix has partnered with the Wilderness Medical Society to present a Mountain Medicine course on Mount Kilimanjaro - the first WMS-accredited course within Africa that qualifies for the Fellowship in the Academy of Wilderness Medicine (FAWM)." Field sessions for the fellowship had previously not been available on the African continent.
“We want to get future meetings accredited as well so that people here can engage, have a goal and grow academically. Thereafter we plan to start the Diploma in Mountain Medicine and possibly one in Environmental or Extreme Medicine as well, which will likely require collaboration between local universities. There’s plenty of financial support and scope for research; it’s a good time to get involved. Once things get going here in South Africa, we can expand throughout the continent."
Ross has enjoyed the process. "Taking people into the wilderness, especially young people, is a crucial part of their education. It allows them to realize how fortunate we are to have simple things like shelter, warmth, food and water. Drinking from a river and discussing why it’s safe to drink from this river and not another, which has been polluted, opens eyes. When you’ve grown up drinking water from a tap and not considering that it's everyone's job to make sure it’s clean, you may not have an appreciation of the importance of not ruining a wilderness water source. When you’ve spent your life using a toilet and you then have to make a plan in the wilderness, you realize the value of what you have at home."
"What I've learned, particularly during my time in Antarctica, is that wilderness, like adversity, is a great leveler. You can take the biggest, strongest athletes up the mountain and find they are just as vulnerable as anyone else, whereas the smallest person on the team could be one of the strongest motivators. We don't climb mountains to get recognition, we climb them to broaden our horizons."