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How Does Open Sky’s Medical Team Support Student Wellness and Growth?

Margaret Kelso, W-EMT | Health Director

Featured Team Members: Margaret Kelso, W-EMT

At Open Sky, our belief is that when students’ physical needs are met, they are able to better focus on the deep therapeutic work that brought them to our program. As they are the first responders to any medical and wellness need in the field, every Field Guide is a certified Wilderness First Responder. Beyond that, Open Sky’s Medical Team is trained and highly competent in wilderness risk management and holistic health, creating and monitoring an environment of holistic health in the wilderness. By having 24/7 on-site Field Medic, employing healthcare professionals with diverse medical backgrounds, and emphasizing the importance and practice of self-care, our students are positioned for great improvements in their overall well-being.

24/7 Field Medic Support

Open Sky Field Medic

Supporting students to be healthy and thrive emotionally and physically in the wilderness is the number one priority at Open Sky, demonstrated in part by our Field Medic role. Two years ago, we became the first wilderness program to have a Field Medic embedded in the base camp and operating area 24 hours a day, seven days a week. All of our Field Medics are either EMTs, Wilderness-EMTs, or Registered Nurses. The Field Medic’s responsibilities are to provide primary and emergency care to students; transport students (as appropriate) in the event that they need further medical care; consult with the Field Guides, Clinical Team, parents, and healthcare professionals; and educate students and staff on health, wellness, and medical response. Our Field Medic also conducts individual bi-weekly medical checks with every student. These checks address physical needs, such as monitoring calorie and water intake, measuring vital signs, and responding with adjustments or treatment as necessary. 

Depth of Medical Team

Because students are in our care for an extended period of time, needs arise that require attention from other medical professionals. Open Sky’s Medical Director, Pat Kearney, MD, administers routine procedures, provides consultation, and addresses any medical needs, whether complex or simple. The Clinical and Field Teams work closely with our psychiatrist. When appropriate, a student’s primary therapist may refer him or her to the psychiatrist to consult about medication changes or perform psychiatric assessments. Open Sky also offers psychological testing administered in the field by licensed clinical psychologists. In addition to myself (the Health Director), our Medical Director, and our psychiatrist, Open Sky also employs a full-time Psychiatric Assistant, Pharmaceutical Coordinator, and an Assistant Health Director to meet the individual needs of our students. 

Emphasis on Self-Care

Part of why wilderness therapy works is because of the unique physical challenges in the wilderness that students learn to overcome, along with the continual emphasis on self-care. Building on student safety in wilderness, it is our goal that students move forward from our program with the knowledge of how to properly care for themselves. Positive self-care habits may start with understanding the impact of taking a daily multivitamin or understanding the impact of putting illegal substances in the body. Open Sky’s Field Medics are able to join teams on expeditions and run a session tailored to the needs and interests of that particular group. For example, one group session could be focused on healthy eating and physical exercise routines while another might center on sexual health and preventative measures. During the bi-weekly medical checks, the Field Medic provides individualized guidance for each student to respond to his or her personal self-care struggles. This guidance arms our students with the information they need to form good habits for life beyond Open Sky.Open Sky Field Medic checks in with student.

In the field, students learn mindfulness practices such as the Four-Line Feeling Check (checking in with the mind, soul, heart, and body) which encourages body awareness and self-care. Awareness of the physical body empowers our students to learn how to better address all of their other needs. A lack of awareness of the physical body can lead to more complex issues or psychosomatic symptoms. These are symptoms that may present as nausea when anxious, headaches when stressed, phantom muscle or joint pain when scared, etc. Students who experience these symptoms aren’t doing so consciously or with the goal of trying to get out of an activity. The cause may be rooted in a lack of awareness around the emotional connection to the physical body. When Open Sky’s medical team checks in with students presenting with symptoms, we incorporate an emotional check-in as part of our physical assessment. We treat every physical symptom as a medical issue until proven otherwise. If we eliminate the possibility of any immediate medical concern through a medical examination or testing if necessary, we work with students to connect the physical symptoms with the emotion they are feeling, empowering them to have control over their mind and body.

Open Sky’s commitment to supporting the health and wellbeing of our students is holistic: health of the mind, soul, heart, and body. When students are thriving and taking care of themselves physically, they are more present and ready to pursue emotional healing, as well. Our Medical Team strives to meet each student’s core physical needs so that they can successfully engage in therapy and build a foundation for long-lasting restoration.

Updated January 2020 – (Original post date January 2018)


January 6th, 2020

Margaret Kelso, W-EMT | Health Director