Beyond Limits and Proud: LGBT & NOLS Wilderness Medicine Experience

By Emily Ambrose

Jun 9, 2016

I entered the Wilderness First Responder course nervous.

It was January, four months prior to my first season as a rafting guide on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon for AzRA Discovery. The WFR certification through NOLS Wilderness Medicine would grant me the final two certifications I needed.

I was nervous for a couple reasons: First, my medical knowledge was limited to watching Grey's Anatomy on TV prior to the course; second, I was unsure how I would be triggered or invalidated in my Queer identity through the nine-day course.

On the river

Photo courtesy of Emily Ambrose.

During the academic year, I am the assistant director of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning & Ally (GLBTQQA) Resource Center at Colorado State University. I came out as a senior while earning my BA at CU-Boulder, having been part of a sorority for my four years in college. Nine years later, I've worked professionally with my sorority, earned my Master's, worked for leadership initiatives, and now am working in the GLBTQQA Resource center—seven months in! Thus far, there have been successes programmatically and personally.

Coming from a guiding family, my sister is my mento—we talk about the joys and challenges of our jobs, and I still have my own preconceived notions about how welcome the LGBTQ community is within outdoors-focused spaces, which is ironic because I know many of us are extremely involved in outdoor leadership ventures. However, “involved” does not necessarily translate to “supported.”

WFR course photo

Photo courtesy of Emily Ambrose.

My previously mentioned fears going into the WFR course were quelled on both accounts. Because of the exceptional training in the curriculum, competence of the instructors, and supportive atmosphere, I left the course ready, prepared, and confident.

When I think back to my nine-day WFR course, I think about how anxious I was to start and the transformation which occurred as I learned more and as my instructors supported my learning. I worked hard, studied, practiced, and earned a 94% on my written exam!

My favorite memory was working in a scenario team: a ranger commented that he'd been doing scenario trainings for decades and never before had been so convinced of a patient's acting ability as mine.

Overall, what stands out is the care, competence, and compassion displayed by Lisa and Josh, my instructors. They are what I remember most, and I hope to continue caring for patients as well as they taught me to.

Most importantly, the atmosphere of the course was supportive to who I was as a person in subtle ways:

1) The examples used in scenarios were inclusive to multiple relationship types and family structures.

2) There was a supportive sticker for LGBT rights on one of the instructor's water bottles.

Both of these seemingly-mundane examples left a huge impact on me, even over a year later. We notice the little things; the little ways support and inclusion are shown, and it makes me support NOLS Wilderness Medicine even more because of the small ways the instructors showed up during the course.

Also, learning that a representative from NOLS was at the Creating Change Conference this year made me proud to be an alumna of NOLS. It made me want to support the organization even more. It made me feel more confident in encouraging friends and colleagues to participate in courses through NOLS.

Taking the WFR through NOLS Wilderness Medicine was one of the best professional and personal decisions I've ever made.

It not only made me a worthwhile person to keep around during the Zombie Apocalypse (my partner and roommate are particularly preoccupied with this fact), it encouraged my confidence as a leader and point-person in crisis situations. I am in the "wilderness" less frequently than others due to my primary work schedule; however I constantly carry medical gloves and a permanent marker with me—just in case. This course fundamentally changed the way I see the world, and the awareness I now bring to every situation.

Before my WFR course, swamping in the Grand Canyon was a dream of mine—I wanted to follow my family's footsteps and not feel at the outskirts of my family. I never thought I could until some guides I respect encouraged me to work toward my certifications, having seen my passion and work ethics on a trip a few years ago.

Similar to the timid students with whom I work, unsure of what's around the corner, I needed a nudge to believe in myself. Now with my WFR from NOLS Wilderness Medicine, and a few more trips under my belt, I'm always learning but much more confident.

In fact, my first season we were caught in a rockfall, which injured a few, and there was a wrist dislocation where a SOAP (Summary, Objective, Assessment, Plan) report was needed to assess needed evacuation. Both were handled beautifully because of my training.

I'm scheduled for two trips down the Colorado River this June, eight days each on 38-foot motor rigs. I've been waiting since last summer's last day on the river for this time to come.

This year is especially exciting, as my partner Dee will be accompanying me for her first extended river trip as the assistant. I cannot wait to show her one of my heart homes that, up until now, she's only heard about. Also, I will have the opportunity to guide with my uncle who worked toward women's access to guiding in the Grand Canyon. (To read more, I suggest Breaking Into the Current, by Louise Teal. Exceptional book.)

My goal this summer is to learn all I can about these topics so I can share aspects with the guests. My family was involved in women entering into the river guiding industry in Grand Canyon. I'm very proud of that and want to carry on that legacy.

Photo courtesy of Emily Ambrose

Photo courtesy of Emily Ambrose.

My overarching goal is to consistently live authentically through my values: this means showing up as my whole self in as many places I can, including the Grand Canyon.

It's important for me to exist, to be visible in my LGBTQ identity, to openly share about the trials and joys of my life and loves, to not shy away when the conversation turns controversial, which is sometimes easier to do.

I believe the lives I lead inform each other—being a guide in the summer makes me a better advocate during the school year, and visa versa. I use examples and stories from each space to drive home encouragement and insight.

I will continue to not be limited by my identities or the stereotypes of others, but limitless in what I continue to achieve and encourage in others.

Written By

Emily Ambrose

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