Hospital’s challenge: Is there a doctor on the playa?

Each year, more than 60,000 people descend on the Black Rock Desert north of Gerlach to celebrate art, culture and self-expression during the weeklong Burning Man event.

Like any city of that size, some of the residents of Black Rock City will become sick or suffer injury.

Humboldt General Hospital in Winnemucca provides medical services and advanced care for thousands of residents of Black Rock City — and it’s no mean feat to recruit the more than 300 doctors, EMTs and skilled medical personnel to staff the event. But those recruitment have helped bolster the staff at the small rural hospital in Winnemucca as well as allowed Humboldt General to purchase a mobile hospital it can use year-round.

Louis Mendoila, wellness coordinator for Humboldt General Hospital and hospital operations chief for the large HGH medical camp at Burning Man, spearheads recruiting efforts for Humboldt General. HGH was awarded the medical services contract four years ago and replaced REMSA, which had staffed the event with medical personnel for more than a dozen years, Mendoila says.

The Black Rock City Emergency Services Division has a staff of volunteer doctors, nurses and EMTs that provide non-emergency first aid and medical evaluation for playa revelers who’ve seen too much sun or spirits, while the much larger group from Humboldt General provides advanced medical care and staffs a fleet of first-responder ambulances.

Mendiola says that in a city of 60,000 to 70,000 people with absolutely no infrastructure, the medical camp is one of the event’s more highly trafficked campsites. Common injuries include broken arms and legs from bicycle or falling accidents, as well as urinary tract or upper-respiratory infections from playa dust and over-consumption of alcohol and drugs. Over the course of the event Humboldt General staffs 20 to 30 of its own personnel, with the rest coming from Reno, Sparks and many places beyond the Silver State.

“We have a number of physicians and nurses that come from as far away as Washington, D.C., to work the event,” Mendiola said last week from the playa as the medical services team readied for the event that begins this week. “We have a small chunk from Humboldt General, but we are a small rural hospital and we still have to provide those professionals in our hospital to take care of the community.”

But the largest obstacle to overcome is the remoteness of the Black Rock Desert, Mendiola says. Black Rock City is more than two hours drive from Reno-Sparks hospitals or any tertiary care center.

“We have to bring these services out here in the middle of nowhere with limited utilities and resources, and on top of that, the environment is dusty and alkaline and the weather can change in a moment’s notice,” Mendiola says.

In addition to a dedicated website for its recruitment efforts, Humboldt General works with Renown, Saint Mary’s and the University of Nevada School of Medicine to recruit skilled medical workers to the event. Medical staff that work Burning Man get a free ticket if they complete a certain number of shifts, and if they complete five to six shifts they also get free food from an onsite caterer.

Finding personnel to work the entire event can be difficult, Mendiola says.

“The event is very iconic, and you always have people who want to work but they want to work one eight-hour shift and get a ticket.”

Finding physicians to staff the event — about 30 are required to adequately address the medical concerns for Black Rock City residents — also can be a challenge, but HGH has had great success through its partnership with UNR’s School of Medicine. Second- and third-year resident physicians from Reno and Las Vegas are given credit for working the event, Mendiola says.

It’s no chore to work at Burning Man, either, he adds. Several doctors who work in other states have maintained licenses in Nevada specifically so they can work at Burning Man in late August. The medical camp at Burning Man is quite large: Three 22-foot by 44-foot inflatable hospital buildings and two 22-foot by 22-foot smaller structures. At peak times the hospital has 50 to 60 beds.

An ancillary benefit to Humboldt General: Several doctors recruited to work Burning Man also work shifts at Humboldt General on a per-diem basis. Recruiting highly trained medical personnel to work at small rural hospitals is a well-documented problem across the country.

The partnership with Burning Man organizers also has allowed Humboldt General to purchase a large portable hospital system that can care for upwards of 400 patients in a 24-hour time frame, Mendiola notes.

“We have this resource that we can deploy to this event and in the event of a large-scale incident (in Humboldt County),” he says.


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