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Physician Assistants, Inside & Out

Wilderness Survival Expert Looks to Return PA Profession to Its Roots

Greg Davenport, PA-C, DHSc, is taking a break from his other job as a nationally recognized speaker and wilderness survival instructor to help the PA profession return to its roots. Davenport, 53, is the newly hired dean and program director of the physician assistant program at Gardener-Webb University in Boiling Springs, N.C. The program is still in the planning stages, and Davenport hopes it will open in 2014. He, his wife and their seven children are in the process of moving to North Carolina from Arkansas, where Davenport worked as an emergency medicine PA.

"We have a lot of interest in getting back to the roots of the PA profession, having PAs help in inner cities and rural areas," Davenport said. "We also want students to graduate with disaster relief experience." Davenport hopes the program can add an extra term to focus on disaster medicine, giving students the medical, policy and cultural knowledge to provide care following a disaster.

Preparedness and prevention are areas of expertise for Davenport. Outside of his traditional clinical work, Davenport has for many years taught wilderness medicine and outdoor survival skills courses and travelled the country as a motivational speaker. He has written six books on outdoor survival. His first, "Wilderness Survival," is now in its second printing and is used as a text by many colleges and universities.

Before he became a PA, Davenport served in the U.S. Air Force as a Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) instructor, training pilots to survive in any environment in the event their plane is brought down or they are forced to eject.

"Our whole goal is to train air crew members to survive in combat and noncombat situations," Davenport said. The path to becoming a SERE instructor consists of a grueling year-long series of courses in which participants spend the first 6 months learning to survive in "every environment imaginable," Davenport said. They spend the final 6 months learning to teach the survival skills they have learned to others.

Davenport has spent a lot of time in conditions where death is a real possibility for the untrained or unprepared. "The worst environment I've ever been in is open water," he said. "When you're out there in a life raft and you have 15-foot swells and you're throwing up until you can't anymore, that's a tough environment because of the limited resources. Deserts can be tough, but there are things you can do in the desert to help yourself stay alive a bit longer. In open water, if you don't know how to make the craft head towards sea lanes or land, you're stuck."

"I've gone 4 nights without sleep," Davenport said. "I've gone lengthy periods with no food." During one training session, Davenport says he lost 25 pounds in 25 days.

Davenport has been a PA since 1993. He enrolled in a PA program 10 days after he left the service, but he maintained an interest in survival and launched a school to teach survival skills to civilians 2 years later. He also trains search-and-rescue teams, using his survival expertise to add depth to the training. For example, he makes sure those he trains know how to build fire and shelter to treat and ward off hypothermia during rescues, as they may not be in an environment easily accessible by rescue vehicles.

Davenport sees parallels between his careers as a clinician and survival instructor, particularly since both focus on prevention. "[Clinicians] are trying to be more proactive about preventing disease, and the same thing holds true in the wilderness industry. Wilderness survival is about proper prior preparation. Make sure you're carrying proper hydration, a first-aid kit, an all-weather blanket. I'm a big believer in the emergency locator beacon," he said. "Medicine is now a preventive process. If you find yourself in a crisis and have taken preventive steps, your odds of survival go way up. We want to do what we can to set up a good outcome, but accept that there might be a bad outcome."

The benefit of outdoor exercise is something Davenport often passes on to his patients. "If I tell somebody that I want them to exercise 5 days a week at a brisk pace for 45 minutes, some people can do that in the city," Davenport said. "But some people need a little bit more adventure in it. I tell them some of the places they can go, and then I tell them how to prepare. They need to carry a whistle and signal mirror, 2 quarts of water and a means to purify water, and an all-weather blanket. The worst thing in the world would be to have one of my patients get lost and say, 'I never would have come out here if he hadn't told me to.'"

For now, Davenport, who recently earned a doctor of health sciences degree, has put aside his speaking and survival instruction to focus on his work at Gardner-Webb. He recently conducted research that showed students who graduate with no student loan debt were far more likely to take jobs in primary care than those with significant debt. "My goal is not only to get PAs back to their original foundation, but to close this gap. I want to see if I can meld some of my experiences into their training so that we can have PAs ready to respond to rural or inner city needs, or any kind of immediate crisis."

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