Medical Handbooks for Paddlers
By Tamia Nelson
October 14, 2003
A Note to the Reader This is a book review. It is
not a guide to diagnosis and treatment. Moreover, the art of medicine is constantly
evolving. Whatever medical handbook you bring into the backcountry be it one
of the books reviewed here or another of your own choosing your best source
of information on medical matters is always your own doctor. If you value your life
and health, consult her before you head for the put-in.
Canoeing and kayaking are great fun. That goes without
saying. Like all physically demanding sports, however, they can also be hazardous.
Happily, most illnesses and injuries in the backcountry are minor. But some are not.
Padders drown, fall
victim to heat
illnesses, suffer heart attacks, and succumb to dehydration. Paddling, wading,
portaging can lead to infected blisters, disabling sprains and strains,
dislocations, and fractures. Bad water can
sicken even the healthiest paddler, and a single moment's carelessness may end with
an ax blade driven deep into a foot. Nor is nature always kind. Lightning, cold
water, and falling trees kill without warning, and there are still a few animals
left on earth who don't recognize
human beings as the top of the food chain.
Then there are the usual run of everyday aches, pains, and ailments. An abscessed
tooth, a bad headache, or a bout of diarrhea each of these can put an end to
the fun in a hurry.
What to do? At home, help is as close as your telephone. In the backcountry,
however, you're on your own, whatever your health plan. Sure, modern technology can
lend a helping hand. A cell phone or VHF radio can put you in touch with the outside
world in seconds, and GPS will provide your exact coordinates to Search and Rescue
personnel. But that doesn't guarantee a happy ending. Cell phone networks have gaps.
Radio transmission is affected by atmospheric conditions and terrain. Batteries
fail. And there are some days when even the boldest pilots won't fly.
There's also cost to consider. If you call out Air-Sea Rescue when you lose a
filling, you'll soon have more than a toothache to worry about.
The answer? Knowledge is power. A first-aid course is a start, but it isn't
enough. Anyone traveling into the backcountry needs to know more. You owe it to
yourself, your companions, and your loved ones. So talk to your doctor. Take a
wilderness medicine course. And always pack a good medical handbook in the dry bag,
along with your splints and bandages.
But what, exactly, is a "good medical handbook"? I like to start with the
criteria laid down in a nineteenth-century testimonial for The Young Sea
Officer's Sheet Anchor, an early textbook for naval officers-in-training: "We
can recommend Mr. Lever's Work as containing nothing that is superfluous, and all
things that are useful." That's simple, isn't it? "Nothing that is superfluous, and
all things that are useful." Now let's see how an old standby and a new contender
The old standby first. I came to paddling
by way of mountaineering. When my climbing trips took me farther afield than the
road-cuts, hills, and frozen waterfalls near my rural home, a copy of James A.
Wilkerson's Medicine for Mountaineering (The Mountaineers Books,
Seattle, Washington) went along with me. It was a good choice, and others must have
thought so, too: the fifth edition is already in its second printing. I've changed
in the last thirty years, of course. I no longer climb frozen waterfalls, for one
thing. And Medicine for Mountaineering has changed with the times, as well.
The title now adds the welcome phrase And Other Wilderness Activities.
Canoeists and kayakers take heart!
The title says it all. Medicine for Mountaineering is not your ordinary
first-aid text. It's a true "handbook of medicine." The names of twelve physicians
appear in the list of contributors, and the text is detailed, comprehensive, and
authoritative. Preventative medicine, diagnosis, and treatment they're all
here, along with a handy (and necessary) glossary, a wilderness pharmacopeia, and a
guide to a number of therapeutic procedures, including intravenous fluid therapy,
urethral catheterization, and tube thoracostomy (a "severely hazardous procedure,"
yet one which, when properly performed, "may be lifesaving").
The information is presented pretty well, too. The new, larger format insures
plenty of space for marginal notes, even if it doesn't pack as handily as the older
editions. And the illustrations are well drawn and clear. So far, so good. But
Medicine for Mountaineering is not without its faults, and some are
troubling. Aging eyes may have difficulty with the tiny print, particularly in dim
light. The book needs more illustrations, too. Worst of all, however, is the index.
Although somewhat improved from earlier editions, it's still poor.
A case in point: Suppose you've got a pain in your belly. It's been getting worse
for a couple of hours and now it's got you worried. So you look under "pain." Nope.
Burns and fractures only. You try "belly" next. Nope again. Then another spasm of
cramp assails you. When the pain lets up, you start playing guessing games with the
index, hoping to find the Magic Word that will unlock the secrets of the text.
"Gut"? No. "Abdomen"? No luck there, either, but.
Just below the place in the
index where you were looking for "abdomen" you see "abdominal pain." Eureka! But
you'll probably wish the search had been easier and quicker.
Is this important? Probably not. If you're so familiar with the book that
you know where to go without using the index. But what if you're so sick that
someone else your kid say, or a companion with minimal training has to
find the right section in a hurry? If mommy's too sick to be much help, will her
ten-year-old daughter be able to guess the Magic Word in time? I hope so.
Nor is the index the only obstacle in your path. Even when you hit the Magic Word
on the first try, your problems may not be over. This, or something like it, is
likely to confront you:
A definitive diagnosis may be impossible during the early phases of a disease,
but a tentative or working diagnosis, with the understanding that it may be altered
as signs or symptoms change, is appropriate because it provides the guidance for the
Makes sense to me. It might not to make much sense to a ten-year-old, though. And
it's definitely excess baggage for anyone in a hurry. "Signs or symptoms"? What's
the difference? The glossary will help, but that's even more time lost. And later
you've gotten farther along in the section on "Acute Abdominal Pain," now
just how do you palpate an abdomen? You'll find no illustrations to
There are curious omissions in the text, too. Have you ever lost a filling
in the backcountry? It isn't exactly a rare problem. Want to learn how to plug the
hole the next time it happens? OK. Let's see if we can guess the Magic Word.
"Fillings"? No. "Dental problems"? No. "Teeth"? Nope. How about "toothache," then?
At last! There's nothing about lost fillings in the text, but at least we're told
that "mild or moderate analgesics every four hours
help relieve discomfort."
That's always nice to know.
Now let's go back to our starting point and see how Medicine for
Mountaineering stacks up. Remember the ideal? "Nothing that is superfluous, and
all things that are useful." Well, I'm afraid there's a lot that is superfluous in
Medicine. Like chatty disquisitions on the utility of working diagnoses, for
example. And a lot of other things that would be useful a little more help in
dealing with tooth troubles, say simply can't be found at all. My conclusion?
There's room for improvement. Still, despite its shortcomings, Medicine for
Mountaineering remains the gold standard for wilderness medical guides. If
you're going high or planning an expedition to the back of beyond, it's your best
bet. Just be sure that everybody in your group even your ten-year-old
daughter is thoroughly familiar with the book's layout and organization
before you leave home.
But what if you're not planning an expedition or going high? What if you just
want an accessible, easy to use handbook, one that addresses common problems while
also helping you decide when it's time to call for help. Then you might want to
consider David Werner's Where There Is No Doctor: A Village Health Care
Handbook (Hesperian Foundation, Berkeley, California), instead.
First published in English in 1977, Where There Is No Doctor was last
revised in 1992, with the help of Carol Thuman and Jane Maxwell. This edition is now
in its sixth printing. Originally intended as a handbook for health-care workers in
isolated rural villages, Where There Is No Doctor is very different from
Medicine for Mountaineering. It's written in the language of everyday life,
for one thing: colloquial, blunt, and matter-of-fact. Moreover, every page is
embellished with simple but strikingly effective line drawings. (CAUTION. These
graphics are frequently graphic, but then sickness doesn't often show a
pretty face, does it?) And the index the book's "Yellow Pages," in fact as
well as function is superb. Our hypothetical patient with a pain in her belly
won't have to waste time guessing the Magic Word. She need only turn to "Pain: in
the belly." (Or just "belly." Or "abdomen." There are entries under all three.)
There she'll find a list of page references, the second of which will bring her to
an excellent, copiously-illustrated, hands-on guide to the technique of abdominal
examination. And it gets even better. The accompanying diagnostic chart can be
understood at a glance, while cross-references make it easy to find related sections
of the text.
Is the book perfect, then? No. Dental problems get short shrift in Where There
Is No Doctor, too, though the coverage is still better than in Medicine for
Mountaineering, and a slim companion volume, Murray Dickson's Where There
Is No Dentist, fills the
cavity admirably. (Lost filling? See
Dickson's index under "Fillings, lost or broken: diagnosis and treatment.") Of more
importance, perhaps, Where There Is No Doctor is starting to show its age.
With the rapid evolution of resistant strains of common bacterial and protozoan
pathogens, revision of the book's "Green Pages" ("Information on Medicines") is now
What's the bottom line? Where There Is No Doctor is reasonably
comprehensive, well-organized, easy to understand, and accessible. It was not
intended as a handbook for wilderness travelers, however, and it contains much that
they may find superfluous. Few paddling parties will need to deal with outbreaks of
sexually transmitted disease, after all, and not many canoeists and kayakers will
ever have to cope with a breech birth on the riverbank. (The section entitled
"Health and Sicknesses of Children" will be welcomed by many paddling
parents, though.) And does Where There Is No Doctor have "all that is
useful"? No. While its coverage of tropical diseases is understandably thorough,
Medicine for Mountaineering does a better job on some subjects: environmental
injuries and fractures, for example.
That said, when illness or injury strikes, I now turn first to Where There Is
No Doctor, both in the field and at home. But which book will suit you
best? That's for you to decide. Canoeists and kayakers who combine climbing and
paddling will probably find that Medicine for Mountaineering is still king of
the hill. On the other hand, folks who frequently paddle in the tropics, or whose
children often accompany them into the backcountry, may give the edge to Where
There Is No Doctor. (Large groups can carry both, of course. They probably
Do you need a little help coming to a decision? Perform a simple test. Use each
book to look for information about problems that you and your paddling companions
have already encountered. Then ask yourself
- How easy was it to find what I was looking for? In the light of my own
experience, did what I read make sense?
- Was the index helpful? Could I go directly to the proper place in the text,
or did I have to hunt for information, returning to the index again and again?
- If I needed to use this book for help in an emergency, would I be able to
find what I needed quickly, and would I understand what I read, the first time I
Be guided accordingly.
It's also a good idea to take your medical handbook to your doctor and ask her
opinion. You'll need prescriptions for many medications, anyway. And remember that
no single medical guide can be relied on absolutely. Where There Is No
Doctor, for instance, recommends treating some life-threatening conditions with
both tetracycline and penicillin, taken together. This runs directly counter to the
advice of other authorities. You'll need an expert's help to resolve such conflicts.
In the final analysis, few books ever live up to the proud boast of that
nineteenth century testimonial: "nothing that is superfluous, and all things that
are useful." But both Medicine for Mountaineering and Where There Is No
Doctor come about as close as is humanly possible. Whichever medical handbook
you choose, get to know it well. Read it before you need it. Pay special
attention to the introduction and any appendices, and heed the authors' advice on
using their book. Make notes in the margins, and annotate the index if required. (It
will be required with Medicine for Mountaineering.)
Remember, too, that no book, however good, can substitute for a physician's care.
But you can't carry a doctor in your pack, can you? So find a medical handbook you
can use and bring it along with you on every trip. It's a decision you'll find easy
to live with.
Wilkerson, James A., M.D.., ed. Medicine for Mountaineering & Other Wilderness Activities, 5th ed.. The Mountaineers Books, Seattle,
Washington; 2001 (second printing, 2002). ISBN 0-89886-799-1.
Werner, David, with Carol Thuman and Jane Maxwell. Where There Is No Doctor: A Village Health Care Handbook, rev. ed.. The Hesperian Foundation, Berkeley, California; 1992 (sixth printing, January 2002). ISBN
Dickson, Murray. Where There Is No Dentist. The Hesperian Foundation, Berkeley, California; 1983 (tenth printing, January 2000). ISBN
Copyright © 2003 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights