I’m fascinated by the medical tent at endurance sporting events. Maybe that’s not surprising. After all, I’m a doctor and an athlete.
I have mixed emotions about the medical tent, though. Maybe you do, too. Let me explain….
Dr. Laird and the Kona Medical Tent
I got to thinking about the medical tent this past month when I listened to a talk given by Dr. Robert Laird, the long-time (now retired) medical director for the Ironman World Championship race in Kona. He gave a talk at a sports medicine symposium held in conjunction with this summer’s Challenge Atlantic City events. He told the ~23-year history of medical support for the Ironman race, beginning with its first year in Kona in 1981. That year, Dr. Laird stood on the pier watching the swimmers, dressed in running gear, stethoscope around his neck, cap on his head….and he alone was the extent of the medical support.
Of course, today it’s much different. On race day, there is a 50- to 60-bed field hospital set up in a tented area across from the Kailua Pier. It’s arranged in pods of 6 patient beds and staffed with many physicians, nurses, physical therapists, and non-medical volunteers as well. On race day, it’s the 3rd largest “hospital” on the Big Island of Hawaii. And on race day, up to several hundred athletes among the nearly 2,000 participants in the race receive medical care there.
The medical support team also has a fleet of makeshift “ambulances”–rented white vans with a temporary red cross affixed to the side. Without these vehicles, the need to respond to athletes on the 112-mile bike course or 26.2-mile run course would overwhelm the resources of the local EMS system.
If you’re an athlete with medical needs on race day, the setup is awesome. In truth, the Ironman event as we know it today would be impossible to stage without this elaborate medical support.
My Own Medical Tent Memories
Thankfully, I’ve avoided the medical tent as a patient. I did take a break at a medical aid station along the run course at the 2012 Ironman New Zealand race when I was feeling poorly. But after a cool refreshment, some much needed shade, and a short break, I was able to continue along my way.
I’ve waited near the doors of the medical tent on a couple occasions, though, while my athlete friends were receiving treatment. I remember my buddy, George, losing 12 pounds during the Ironman New Zealand race in 2007 and needing rehydration. I also recall my friend, John Pendergrast, an ophthalmologist, needing treatment for a couple hours after finishing the Ironman South Africa race. Our small group of traveling partners waited anxiously to be sure that John was okay.
I volunteered once in a major medical tent–for the Ironman Florida race. I worked the 6 pm to midnight shift. My lasting memory will be of the athletes who arrived at the finish line and then collapsed. On a day with high temperatures in the gentle 70’s I was surprised at how many athletes arrived at the medical tent at the finish line severely hypothermic and dehydrated. It seemed that the athletes who were worst off were those who arrived after finishing the race in 10-11 hours or so. Perhaps the later arrivals had gone too slowly to get “messed up.” We treated a bunch of athletes that night.
I’ve enjoyed reading the accounts of others who’ve worked in the triathlon medical tent. Check out the report by professional triathlete and physician, Tamsin Lewis.
Marathon Medical Tents
Of course, the medical tent today isn’t confined to triathlon. There is elaborate medical safety planning for the major running races, too. There is often a medical tent at the finish line of the big city marathons and these are often staffed, at least in part, by volunteers.
I recently attended a lunchtime lecture given by one of my cardiology colleagues who had volunteered at the medical tent for the Boston Marathon. There’s a sports medicine symposium before the race and the attendees are offered the opportunity to volunteer in the medical tent. This gives physicians a chance to put into practice what they’ve just learned. Listening to his tale, I get the impression that virtually any medical problem can manifest during the marathon, but that dehydration and heat-related illnesses are the common medical ailments. He shared (and I’ve heard from others as well) that ice baths for rapid cooling of victims with severe heat-related illness probably make the difference for survival–that the EMS system and local hospital emergency rooms might not have the available resources to get athlete patients cooled so quickly. That’s an eye-opener.
Malpractice Insurance Issues
I’ve often wondered–and even worried–about the issue of malpractice insurance coverage for physician volunteers at medical tents. It’s one thing if you’re an emergency physician or sports medicine physician. But it’s another situation entirely if you’re volunteering in a capacity outside your specialty–and perhaps outside the state where you’re licensed. The issue would seem to be relevant not only to physicians but also to nurses and other licensed healthcare professionals as well.
It would be interesting to know if there are instances of malpractice lawsuits brought by athlete-patients against medical tent volunteers. I’m told by the folks at USA Triathlon (USAT) that they’re not (yet) aware of any instances.
In order to encourage volunteer participation by medical professionals at triathlon medical tents, USAT has organized a malpractice insurance coverage opportunity. This opportunity hasn’t received much publicity. For a very modest premium, any licensed medical professional can obtain insurance coverage in situations where their own policies wouldn’t be applicable. I bet this would help put some potential volunteers’ minds at ease and encourage their involvement.
The Mixed Emotions
So, back to the mixed emotions. No doubt, the medical tents at triathlon and major running events provide a useful and needed service. In some cases, it would be impossible to hold events without an organized medical safety net that includes an on-site medical tent. And no doubt, countless athletes have benefitted from care they’ve received by volunteers at these medical tents. So, in the sense of providing a safety net for participants, the medical tent is great.
But on the other hand, I have to wonder if the very existence of the medical tent and ready availability of volunteer medical care doesn’t encourage unsafe behavior on the part of athletes or event organizers. I also wonder how outsiders view this whole enterprise. Surely, if intravenous hydration is required by large numbers of participants just to complete an event, there must be something wrong–either in the venue, the weather conditions, or the preparation of the athletes. Yet I hear many athletes talk casually about how they’ll “just get an IV” after the race.
At any rate, this is all food for thought. I’m intrigued by the medical tent. I hope it’s there when I need it, staffed by capable healthcare professionals. I’ll probably volunteer again, too. But I’ll also have some nagging worries.