Emergency Medicine Professor Shares Her Passion for Wilderness Medicine in Kuwait

Her talk introduced many medical residents, notably women, to the growing field.

It started with an unexpected email. I was invited to give a talk in Kuwait in my area of specialty, wilderness medicine. Like many of my colleagues, I’m used to receiving spam, predatory journal inquiries or invited talks with the underlying agenda of recruiting another paying participant. I would have hit delete if not for the message’s personal and heartfelt nature.

The email came from Dr. Ali Ashkanani, a second-year emergency medicine resident through the Kuwait Board of Emergency Medicine. It’s the sole emergency medicine program in the country and rotates residents through Kuwait’s six public hospitals. Dr. Ashkanani hoped to “benefit our medical community, offering them a unique perspective and skills not usually addressed in our region.” I said yes and started to plan my 6,400-mile trip to the Middle East.

Kuwait is nestled along the Persian Gulf in the northeast corner of the Arabian Peninsula. The country, home to 4.5 million people, is about the size of New Jersey. Its unusual climate features winters relatively cooler than other coastal countries in the area. However, during the summer, temperatures soar to some of the hottest on earth with a record of 129 F. The tiny nation maintains a vibrant coastal climate with fishing and diving, but the rest of the topography is arid desert.

Also, Kuwait ranks first for social progress and has the highest female citizen participation in the workforce of any Gulf Cooperation Council country.

Dr. Phillips with physicians from the conference
Emergency medicine is a relatively new specialty in Kuwait, says Dr. Lara Phillips (second from left). For many conference attendees, this meeting marked their introduction to the wilderness medicine field.

When I arrived in Kuwait City in January, I first met Dr. Banan Alsaleh, a senior resident in emergency medicine. We bonded instantly over our love for true crime documentaries, neuroscience and life philosophies. Similarly, on meeting Dr. Ashkanani, his Harry Potter ringtone caught me by surprise (turns out we’re both Ravenclaw). It became clear I had met my kindred spirits halfway across the world. Over the next week, I experienced incredible generosity and an array of local food and sightseeing.

Emergency medicine is a relatively new specialty in Kuwait with this conference only the second national meeting in the field. I assisted with the wilderness medicine pre-conference workshop led by Dr. Adullah Alhamoudi, who completed a fellowship in the specialty, and Dr. Nawaf Dehrab, chairman of Al-Adan Hospital, one of the major hospitals in the country.

I felt the excitement among the residents, particularly women, to learn about wilderness medicine. For many, this meeting marked their introduction to a subspecialty dedicated to providing care in areas with limited resources and austere conditions. While niche, wilderness medicine has broad implications in public health, humanitarian medicine and disaster medicine.

When Dr. Lara Phillips arrived in Kuwait, she instantly connected with Drs. Banan Alsaleh (left) and Ali Ashkanani (right). “It became clear I had met my kindred spirits halfway across the world,” she says.

In my 15-minute lecture (barely an elevator pitch), I introduced the field and its importance and applicability. After such courteous treatment after my arrival, I hoped to repay my gratitude by delivering the best talk possible. Standing in front of hospital leadership, politicians and dignitaries, my nerves ramped up, but they calmed when I saw the familiar faces of the residents I had bonded with over the week. It became easy to speak from the heart and share my passion with others.

The meeting went well, and Kuwait’s Ministry of Health will continue to support its emergency medicine program to develop this area. I’m also excited to note that I’m working with Drs. Ali, Banan, Abdullah and Nawaf to plan a dedicated wilderness medicine workshop in Kuwait this November.

Many moments will stay with me from the trip, but among the most notable are the countless women emergency medicine residents I met. They initially believed they couldn’t practice in this field because they didn’t perceive themselves as the stereotypical “type” of wilderness person. After the conference, many want to pursue it.

The most rewarding part was observing the learners who never expected to be drawn to wilderness medicine.

Everyone expressed their gratitude, and it became a remarkable, inspiring and touching experience. I believe this program will continue to grow, and to quote Dr. Ali’s original email, “We hope this won’t be the only occasion where our paths cross, as we aim to bring greater attention to wilderness medicine in the Middle East.”

After my trip, I felt a renewed joy in teaching. Perhaps the most rewarding part was observing the learners who never expected to be drawn to wilderness medicine. In fact, 10 years ago, I felt unprepared to enter such a field; I can’t imagine my life without it now.

After seeing the residents in Kuwait find their passion in medicine, I hope to continue introducing people to this amazing subspeciality at Jefferson. It’s a reminder of how much potential there is in the world and how these experiences can make us better teachers, expand our perspective and recruit the next generation to the great outdoors.

Dr. Lara Phillips is a clinical associate professor of emergency medicine and director of wilderness medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.

Top Image Credit: © Adobe Stock Ahmed Alqallaf/Wirestock Creators

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