In March, M3 Campbell Brown and his girlfriend, Britney Ratliff, got the chance to visit Hawaii for a spring break getaway.
For Ratliff, the trip gave her time off from her studies at Western Michigan University where she is a first-year student in the Physician Assistant master’s degree program. Brown, meanwhile, was looking forward to the warmer weather and the chance to prepare and review for the USMLE Step 1 exam while hanging out in the island paradise.
The time in Hawaii offered all those things for the couple – a chance to relax and re-energize. But they also had no idea what would await them during their fifth day away when they found themselves faced with a medical emergency that required them to deploy their skills as EMTs – and the Medical First Responder (MFR) training Brown completed as a first-year student at WMed – to help a person in need.
That day, March 6, 2023, started out simply. Brown and Ratliff hiked the Captain Cook Monument Trail, trekking the two miles down a mountainside to Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park where they snorkeled and checked out the fish in the water.
By the time the lunch hour rolled around, they were ready to make their way back to the trailhead and began their ascent up the mountainside to their waiting vehicle. Brown and Ratliff both recalled it was hot that day, requiring them to take breaks to grab sips of water and seek out shade.
About a half mile into their hike back from the water, Ratliff spotted a person on the trail who was on the ground and being tended to by a group of people who were using an umbrella to block the person from the hot sun.
As they got closer, the couple realized the person Ratliff had spotted was a woman who had passed out as she was attempting to make the same hike back to the trailhead.
“They had called 911,” Ratliff said. “The right side of her face was drooping a bit and when she tried to talk, it was incomprehensible.”
As Ratliff updated 911 dispatchers on the woman’s condition, Brown spoke with bystanders and the woman’s husband, and helped prop the woman up to get her off the ground.
“We came to the realization at the same time that this was probably a stroke, not heat exhaustion or a diabetic seizure,” Brown said.
As she and Brown assessed the woman’s condition, Ratliff said it was clear she had no strength in her right arm, no movement in her right leg, and she slurred her words when she spoke. The woman was also losing consciousness and her pulse weakened.
Brown and Ratliff’s ability to quickly assess the situation that day was buoyed by their experience as EMTs. Brown has been a licensed EMT since 2018 and Ratliff became licensed in 2019. Brown said his MFR training at WMed also kicked in.
At WMed, students receive training and are certified as medical first responders during their first year of medical school. The seven-week MFR course qualifies students for state licensure and national certification as medical first responders. MFR training is a unique part of the medical school’s curriculum, which provides early exposure to the clinical setting, and the course equips students to respond when someone is ill or injured and provides instruction on basic procedures, including taking vital signs, performing CPR, airway management and use of oxygen, wound care, and childbirth, among other things.
The training continues for students after their first year with an advanced cardiovascular life support course along with training in the medical school’s Simulation Center.
That day in Hawaii, Brown and Ratliff quickly came to the decision that the woman could not remain on the trail, which was only accessible by ATV, and that they would have to move her to a spot that local rescue workers could more easily get to. On the phone with 911 dispatchers, Ratliff asked if they should move the woman down the trail closer to the water or move up the mountainside closer to the trailhead.
“They said go up so we did what we needed to do,” Ratliff said.
After the direction from dispatchers, Brown said he and Ratliff, along with other bystanders, gathered a boogie board and towel, and a hammock from Brown’s backpack to piece together a makeshift method to move the woman up the trail.
As they made their way up the trail, the group battled the heat and hills. Other bystanders who were not helping move the woman assisted by carrying backpacks or holding an umbrella to shade the woman from the hot sun.
The group moved the woman a half mile up the trail where they met rescue workers from the Hawaii Fire Department. One of the EMTs began assessing the woman with Brown’s help while Ratliff relayed information to another EMT as part of the handoff for the woman’s trip to the hospital.
Brown, along with the woman’s husband, helped EMTs load her into the covered ATV and then watched as rescue workers drove away. Brown and Ratliff said they haven’t received any updates on the woman’s condition since that day.
As they reflect on what happened, Brown said his training as an EMT and the MFR training he completed at WMed in 2021 served him well as he and Ratliff helped the woman.
“During MFR, we talked a lot about what to do when you don’t have all of the necessary resources available or what to do when the situation is too big for you to control,” Brown said. “That’s what we experienced on the trail that day and I was able to hone in on the things that I could control and use the resources that were available to me. That was really big for me in terms of realizing I can handle this, I got this.”
Ratliff said the incident in March was the first time she had ever treated a stroke victim in the field.
“It was nice to be able to apply what I know as an EMT and what I’ve learned in school to easily figure out what was going on in that moment, and it was nice to be able to help someone. That’s the reason why I went into this field.”
Said Brown: “That moment was the first time in the last two years that I actually felt like a doctor and it was really motivating for me as I prepare to head into my clerkship rotations during my third year at WMed.”