Students brave bugs, burns and bears for rotation at Yellowstone

Rachael Mayfield, MPAS (’13), at Yellowstone National Park

With more than 3 million visitors every year, Yellowstone National Park offers ample opportunity for appreciating the wonders of nature. But its nearly 3,500 square miles also present the prospect for major and minor injuries and illnesses – many of them decidedly non-urban.

"If a can of bear spray can discourage a grizzly," drily notes Rachael Mayfield, MPAS (‘13), "you can just imagine what happens when accidentally sprayed on a human."

She should know: last summer, she was one of only 10 students chosen from across the country to take part in a month-long elective rotation at Yellowstone. The program is a joint effort of the Wilderness Medical Society and Medcor, the medical services outsourcing company that operates Yellowstone’s two clinics.

Mayfield supported staff physician assistants and nurse practitioners as they treated patients for routine things like mild sunburns, dehydration, lacerations and insect bites. But there were more esoteric and place-related complaints, too: fly-fish hook removal, altitude sickness, even asthma exacerbated by sulfur fumes from the park’s famous hot springs.

Rene York (PAS ’14), heads to Yellowstone this month for her rotation and she and Mayfield have already talked about expectations. What advice did Mayfield offer to the aspiring family practitioner?

"Rachael told me to expect to wear multiple hats," says York. "There are only four people at the clinic at any one time, so I’ll be expected to help out in all aspects of running a clinic including patient care, procedures, billing, radiology, pharmacy, stocking and cleaning and maintenance. I’m looking forward to all of it."

Mayfield also says that her patient responsibilities were varied. "My rotation was a great mixture of primary care, emergency, rural medicine, pediatrics, geriatrics and women’s health. About half of the patients were visitors, both domestic and international, and half were park employees who worked in the lodges, hotels, restaurants, stores, fisheries and other areas. They gave me a lot of experience with work-related injuries. The providers were great and they pushed me to be more active in patient care and to get out of my comfort zone."

Mayfield says the only thing she regrets is that the experience was over so quickly. "The time just flew by. It was an unforgettable experience and I’m thankful I was able to learn so much in such a short period and meet such interesting people, too. Rene is in for the experience of a lifetime and I wish her the best; I know she’ll do great."

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