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Students and their camping gear

Stanford Medicine’s wilderness trip gives new students a chance to bond

"SWEAT," Stanford Medicine's pre-orientation wilderness trip gives new medical students a chance to bond before school begins.

“Don’t go it alone” was probably the best piece of advice I got in graduate school. Unfortunately, I didn’t get much guidance on how to do this, and none of us (myself included) felt comfortable enough with our new classmates to admit we were floundering to finish the pile of assigned readings and homework that no human could complete solo.

In medical school, teamwork is just as, if not more, important. So, to give Stanford Medicine's newest students a head start at forming friendships and effective teams before the school year begins they do the opposite of what a hard-working student might normally do: They put their books and laptops away, sleep under the stars for a weekend and have some outdoor fun.

This year, I got to learn how "SWEAT," Stanford Medicine's pre-orientation wilderness trip for MD and master's of medicine students, comes together. On a sunny Friday afternoon in August, buses, cars and bikes pulled up to the edge of Stanford's Roble Field. New medical students piled onto the lawn with their backpacks and suitcases in tow.

The trip is always different, the event organizers told me, but this luggage-laden walk and the tangible feeling of excitement tinged with nerves as students meet their classmates (often for the first time) happens every year.

"I can remember walking up to the field," second-year medical student Christopher Calkins told me. "I remember it fondly."

Last year, the SWEATlings (yes, that's really what they call first-year campers) spent four days and three nights at Lake Alpine, a campground in the central region of the Sierra Nevada between Lake Tahoe and Yosemite.

"It was great — it was why I wanted to come back and support this trip — but we had a bit of weather,” Calkins said laughing. A lightening storm with hail and rain pelted the campsite that year. “We were told, 'It never rains in California,'" Calkins said eyeing the blue sky overhead suspiciously.

Second-year medical student Clare Wise was on the 2017 camping trip with Calkins. "I really love the outdoors, and SWEAT is a neat opportunity to meet people and share common experiences," Wise told me. "I believe in that part of the program and that made me want to stay involved, plus it's fun to meet the new class and get to go camping in beautiful California."

So, despite last year's lightening, rain and hail, Calkins and Wise volunteered to be this year's "super-leaders" — event planners that oversee the 2018 SWEAT trip and the 21 second-year medical student volunteers that lead groups of first-year medical student campers.

It takes months to plan a weekend of camping for about 125 people (79 first-year medical students, the trip organizers and volunteer leaders).

But nature is unpredictable, and after months of hard work, there was a change of plans. Blazes sparked by the Ferguson Fire and smoke threatened the Lake Alpine camp site. Then, with just three weeks until the trip date, evacuations were announced for the Lake Alpine area.

But fortunately, it was easy to find a new spot, Wise told me. "We realized they were going to evacuate the Lake Alpine campsite. Within 10 minutes Chris [Calkins] had an open campground, with the right number of campsites, in a good location and we were rolling. I was shocked that we found any campsites open in California on such short notice."

The new site was Point Reyes Campground, located on the California coast in Marin County north of San Francisco.

Between roughing it and glamping, "it's definitely on the glamping side," Wise said. "We have flush toilets. It's going to be a great experience for everyone I hope."

Wilderness medicine was not on the agenda for first-year medical student, but second-year medical students who choose to return to SWEAT as leaders are able to take wildland emergency medicine training.

After the trip was over, Calkins sent me a trip update, writing:

"It was a joy walking around the campsite on the last night and seeing all of the groups gathered around their respective fires sharing laughs and meaningful conversation... I got to hear some elk bugling from a distance but some of the groups got to see a whole herd and even saw some whales feeding!"

Photo by Holly Alyssa MacCormick

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