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Emergency Department rock star

Dr. Jeff Yoo climbing in Squamish, BC

The similarities between extreme rock climbing and emergency-department medicine might not seem immediately apparent. 

To Dr. Jeff Yoo, ED physician at St. Paul’s Hospital and an elite rock climber in his off hours, the parallels between the two worlds he immerses himself in are abundantly clear.

It’s bit of an irony that the two overlap so much, since the doctor originally began climbing as a medical student at the University of Ottawa to get a break from medicine – something different to focus on, to clear his head and to relieve the intense stress of that time.

Climbing to reset the brain and better care for patients

That stressbusting hobby evolved over the past 11 years to become the centrepiece of his life outside medicine.

He’s climbed all over the world: Europe, South Africa, Japan, the US and of course, British Columbia. In fact, the singular climbing in places like Squamish lured him to Vancouver to practise medicine.

“Getting away for a climb,” he says, “resets my brain and gives me fresh perspective to help patients through their health crises.”

But what about those overlaps between emergency medicine and his climbing, (roped climbing on higher routes), and bouldering (a more gymnastic “short form” of climbing on boulders)? 

Both worlds need technical skill and quick thinking

“Climbing is a highly technical sport. You have to understand movement and the concepts behind them and apply them quickly, in response to the situation,” he says. “In emergency medicine, you also need to be quick on your toes and recognize patterns, like when someone’s blood pressure is low, or is showing a dangerous cardiac rhythm and needs defibrillating.”

(A recent post on his Instagram account, showing him stitching up the swollen lip of a patient who had been hit by a hockey puck, offers a glimpse of how technical the medical work can be.)

The team is everything

In both disciplines, executing quickly, with technical accuracy, makes the difference between a good and bad outcome.

A big feature of both is the reliance on others for that good outcome. “Climbing and emergency medicine are not solo sports. In climbing, you rely on your partner to safely belay you (use ropes to protect a falling climber), keep you safe and alert you to dangers.”

St. Paul’s Hospital ED colleagues: L-R Back: Dr. Mattias Berg, RN Zoe Bake-Paterson, RN Lisa Dobler, RN Leah Ventura, VIP Cashew the Dog, Dr. Aaron Williams. Front: Dr. Yoo

The same goes for the ED. “If you’re leading a patient resuscitation, you absolutely rely on the respiratory therapist, the other doctors and the nurses to be your eyes and ears. No one doctor ever saves a person’s life.”

Climbing has also offered Dr. Yoo the experience of seeing the inside of the ED as a patient, many times. “I’ve had a lot of injuries,” he laughs.

Pulley bursts, herniated discs and sciatica

“When I reached my 30s I still felt invincible. I felt I could climb after my 24-hour call shifts.” Not so.

At one point, he suffered a finger injury with the painful sounding name “pulley burst,” and a herniated disc that led to sciatica and two back surgeries. The injuries were frustrating because they kept him from the sport he loves for months, but they also taught him valuable lessons in patient empathy. 

He feels lucky that each pursuit has given him a kind of family.

Bonding through the fire

“When you’re training in the gym, you see the same people every day. You rely on them to make sure your technique is correct so you avoid injury. It’s like that in the Emergency Department. Nurses, respiratory therapists and other doctors – these aren’t just your co-workers, they’re your friends. When I walk into the ED, I feel a certain excitement – you get to work together with your friends, bonding through the fire.”

While both worlds bring the risk of burnout, particularly medicine right now, where the ED is seeing a huge jump in COVID cases, the satisfaction each offers is great.

“When you master a particularly difficult climb after working on it for some time, the feeling is incredible. In the ED, when you have worked long and hard and saved a patient’s life, the feelings are similar.”

“It brings euphoria, a sense of purpose – a feeling that this is why we do this work.”

You can see Dr. Yoo’s climbing exploits on his Instagram account @drjeffclimbs. You might also see his educational medical videos.