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The First WEMT Course…That Almost Wasn't
By Julie Hwang
WMI co-founder Melissa Gray works with students on WMI's first-ever WEMT course.

Buck Tilton swears he almost had a heart attack during the first WEMT course he and Melissa Gray taught in Colorado. Two weeks before, the two instructors in the yet-immature wilderness medicine field drove from New Hampshire to the wide-open market in the West to start what would become the Wilderness Medicine Institute (WMI). Once they arrived, they discovered that their carefully set plans had fallen through.

Of the ingredients they needed to run a WEMT course (students, classroom, gear, instructors, hospital rotations and permission to test), they only had half. Gear was backordered, permission to test nonexistent, and hospital rotations a dangled promise. As seasoned curveball handlers, they immediately jumped on the phone and started calling in favors across the country.

The gear arrived in time for students to unpack on their first day, and everything fell back into place, except for permission to test, which Gray and Tilton didn’t cement until halfway through the course. In the end, students from the first WEMT were officially authorized by the state of New Hampshire.

“We were operating on faith, I guess,” Gray says about the course.

Fifteen years and more than 40,000 students later, WMI celebrates another successful anniversary. We found a few students from the first WEMT course and dredged their memories back to that early WMI adventure. While convenient timing and location brought them together initially, these students found inspiring education, lasting friendships, confidence, and careers in outdoor education, medicine and adventure.

Jim Richards drove into Gunnison, Colo. with a bike and a kayak strapped to his car. During the month, Richards remembers getting outside with his new friends at every possible opportunity. “It was a really good group of individuals who got along and recreated together and learned together,” the outdoor education veteran says.

Richards also got a new nickname on the course, one that has stuck during his 11-year NOLS career. Tilton called him Jim “Danger,” though Richards doesn’t exactly remember how this nickname started.

Shana Tarter, one of WMI's first students, now serves as the Institute's Assistant Director.

Shana Tarter: Lured from her room one night by shouts of an accident, Shana Tarter vividly remembers running out only to be met with homemade cookies and her classmates to celebrate her birthday. “I don’t think I’ve ever had anything like that,” she says. During the WEMT, Tarter responded to a real rescue with Ish Antonio and Rod Alne, two military students on the course. As they climbed into the helicopter, she remembers them whispering in her ear, “These guys don’t know how to fly these things; they crash all of the time.”

Tarter developed a connection with WMI that has grown tighter over the years. The Cornell graduate’s inspiring experience sparked a career in wilderness medicine. “A lot of places have good curriculums, but WMI applies this curriculum in the manner most useful to students.” A few years after her course, Tarter came back to instruct and is now the Assistant Director of WMI.

Ish Antonio: “The people made the course enjoyable,” Ish Antonio says about his WMI experience. “It was a totally different kind of environment for me, and it was a breath of fresh air.”

Antonio, who recently retired from a career as a pararescuer, found that the WMI curriculum and rescue methodology lined up well with his military background. He describes WMI founders Tilton and Gray as “outstanding instructors” who made learning enjoyable because they liked their job and had extensive knowledge and personal experience. “I’d do the course again if I could.”

Cleve Justis: “I was completely blown away,” Cleve Justis says about WMI’s first WEMT. Justis compares the month-long experience to a NOLS course, where expedition behavior and taking care of each other take on a huge importance.

The style Justis encountered incorporated a fun, hands-on experience different from traditional academic learning. “Our instructors could connect with students in ways that no other educator I’d had until that time could,” he recalls. “And they remembered everyone’s names the first time around the room; that was impressive.”

When the environmental educator graduated from the course, he felt he had accomplished the gold standard in outdoor leaders. He’s still friends with his instructors and classmates. And the lessons have traveled with him as an EMT, WMI Instructor, NOLS Instructor and the Director of the Headlands Institute. “WMI profoundly shaped my approach to patient care,” he recognizes.

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