On Call in the Wild: An Expedition Doctor Combines Medicine and Adventure

Posted: March 12, 2014 by kirisyko in SykOtic

Wilderness physician Matt Lewin has traveled to the nether reaches of the planet to treat scientists in the field.

It is a dark night on a lonely highway outside Sante Fe, N.M. In the distance on either side of the road, you can still see the looming outlines of stately mesas.

“That’s all sedimentary rock up there. If you need to urinate, I’m happy to pull over,” Matt Lewin says as I glance out the window. “Some of the greatest fossil discoveries on Earth have been made from taking a piss.”

Lewin is not being sarcastic. For him, a drive down a New Mexico highway is something between taking a trip to Disneyland and being subjected to Chinese water torture. Miles upon miles of potential finds lie in wait, but each mile marker represents another lost opportunity. A few times he can’t contain himself, and we pull over to look at deposits by the highway.

“I’m not a snob,” he says at one point during the trip, examining an ordinary piece of petrified wood that most fossil hunters would probably ignore. “Something that lasted 35 million years or 100 million years, and it’s as beautiful as the day it was laid down.”

Lewin is not a professional paleontologist. At best he is an enthusiastic amateur with an exceptionally good eye. Yet as an expert in “expedition medicine,” Lewin has been a part of some of the remotest digs on Earth. When a 1-ton dinosaur bone breaks a scientist’s leg three days’ travel from the nearest hospital, few people are better equipped to deal with it than him.

Lewin’s dual passions of medicine and fossils make for dizzying conversation as he switches, rapid fire, between how to fill a dinosaur footprint with plaster and how to use that same plaster to fashion an emergency cast. Back in the car, he lists famous fossil discoveries the way others recite baseball stats, and he holds forth on the many uses of safety pins in an emergency — like pinning an unconscious patient’s tongue to his cheek to prevent choking.

I am in New Mexico crashing Lewin’s vacation to learn how doctors working days away from civilization respond to emergencies with little more than intuition and a cooler full of medical equipment. Through a new institute he directs in San Francisco, Lewin has become the go-to guy for scientists worried about tropical diseases and exotic poisonous animals, by providing advice, logistics and referrals. But his pathway to expedition doctor was hardly direct…

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