Webb Chappell Learns About Wilderness Medicine for Orion Magazine

Aug 13, 2019
Photographer Spotlight

“We should be embarrassed,” says Dr. Stuart Harris of Massachusetts General Hospital.

Dr. Harris

The "we" in this forceful statement is the medical community, which Harris argues has failed to properly educate the public about the ever-present issues surrounding climate change. Last summer, the physician did an interview with Orion Magazine, a Massachusetts-based non-profit quarterly which covers environmental and societal issues.

Tear sheet where, somehow, they spelled Webb's name wrong

The photographer for the story, Webb Chappell, has been working for three decades both on projects of this ilk and with the magazine’s head designer.

The head designer [at Orion], Hans Teensma, [contacted] me. I have been a Boston-based photographer for thirty years and have known Hans that whole time. [I was given] total freedom. The only restraints were budget and subjects’ time.

Dr. Harris’ specialty is wilderness medicine, which has a more fluid definition than you might think. The Wilderness Medical Society describes the discipline in part as “...defined by difficult patient access, limited equipment, and environmental extremes.”

Tear sheets, tear sheets everywhere

At first, the field of wilderness medicine was meant for places like glaciers, forests, and deserts. You know, conventional wilderness. But since our climate is changing rapidly, wilderness medicine is becoming relevant in big cities as well. As the article explains, “wilderness” in this context is more of a method than a setting, because it forces doctors to provide adequate care in extreme environments without the help of advanced medical tools. To encapsulate the evolution of this practice, Webb decided photographing Dr. Harris under a bridge near MGH was the way to go.  

[Dr. Harris] was very open my idea of photographing him under a downtown bridge. It’s a great atmospheric urban environment very close to Mass General Hospital where Dr. Harris works. I had to pick him up, drive there, setup, shoot, and then get him back in a little over an hour!

Under the Bridge is a great RHCP song

[Learning about this field] was a revelation. Wilderness is wilderness whether a high mountain canyon or back street alley.

One of the tentpoles of wilderness medicine is the idea that physicians must be prepared to improvise capably regardless of location. Dr. Harris emphasized the necessity of this skillset and used the response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti as an example. He recalled that the doctors who came from all over the globe “didn’t know how to take care of themselves first,” and, thusly, “became burdens on the overall system” and “a net negative.”

[Dr. Harris is a] great, outgoing, engaged guy. I was impressed with his proactive personality and his drive to work towards change in the medical system to address current needs in dispensing medicine in a more fluid way in urban disaster situations.

Slowly but surely — and thanks in large part to people like Dr. Harris — wilderness medicine is becoming more prominent within the medical field. When Dr. Harris finished up his residency 20 years ago, there were no wilderness fellowships in America. Now there are more than a dozen such programs at schools like Cornell, Johns Hopkins, Colorado, and Utah, and the trend should continue as the need for this practice increases.

Wilderness medicine specialists are popping up everywhere now

One of the things Webb most admires about Dr. Harris is his willingness to speak up and be a catalyst for change within his community. It’s clear Dr. Harris understands the awesome power and influence that comes with wearing a white coat, and he’s not afraid to use his platform to raise awareness of the opportunites to act in response to climate change. Webb believes people in any line of work can take Dr. Harris’ lessons and apply them to their own careers. 

[It’s important to be] proactive, recognize changes in your field, and adapt to them. This is true for all professions.


Designer: Hans Teensma

Check out more of Webb’s work at webbchappell.com.

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