Just a few years out of his residency, Dr. Auerbach established himself as a father of the field that came to be known as wilderness medicine. With Edward C. Geehr, a fellow specialist in emergency medicine, he co-edited the volume “Management of Wilderness and Environmental Emergencies” (1983), a reference guide that a reviewer for the New England Journal of Medicine described as “long overdue” and one that “doubtless will be a fixture in every emergency room.”
The reviewer’s prediction proved correct: The volume now titled “Auerbach’s Wilderness Medicine,” with sections on such topic as wild-animal attacks, polar medicine and avalanches, volcanic eruptions, cave rescue, toxic mushroom ingestion and wilderness dentistry, is today in its seventh edition, an essential guide to medicine in extremis.
Dr. Auerbach, who also became an authority on the delivery of medical care after earthquakes and other natural disasters, died June 23 at his home in Los Altos, Calif. He was 70. His death was announced by Stanford University’s medical school, where he served during the early 1990s as chief of emergency medicine and where he recently took emeritus status as a professor. The cause was brain cancer, said his son Brian Auerbach.
Dr. Auerbach remarked in an interview with Stanford that he went into emergency medicine “almost on an impulse.” He became interested in the subset of wilderness medicine, he said, during an internship on an Indian reservation in Montana.
The dearth of medical literature on topics such as snake bites and heat-related illness, he said, inspired him to compile a guide to wilderness medicine. He also co-founded, in 1983, the Wilderness Medical Society, which provides training for physicians and rotations for medical students who might not otherwise encounter topics such as bear attacks or jungle travel in their formal studies.
Study could take a physician only so far, Dr. Auerbach cautioned; there was also the matter of temperament and the ability to maintain composure under stress.
“For some reason, I’ve always been able to step back and then when things get really chaotic and scary for other people from a medical perspective, I generally get calmer,” he said in the Stanford interview. “Maybe that’s why I like emergency medicine.”
Once, according to a tribute posted online by the university, Dr. Auerbach broke his ankle while hiking in the Sierra Nevada and fashioned his own splint. Another time, he was driving to a Little League game with his son when he stopped to assist at the scene of a car accident.
“Dad pulled over and called a coach to come get us,” his son Daniel told the university. “He showed up later at the baseball game, his arm all wrapped up in gauze. He’d crawled through the back window, cutting up his arm to save the guy in the car.”
Paul Stuart Auerbach was born in Plainfield, N.J., on Jan. 4, 1951. His father was a patents manager for the chemical company Union Carbide, and his mother was a teacher.
Dr. Auerbach played Division 1 tennis and competed in wrestling at Duke University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in religion in 1973 and a medical degree in 1977. He completed a residency in emergency medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles, and in 1989, he received a master’s degree in management from the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
Dr. Auerbach wrote or co-wrote books including the “Field Guide to Wilderness Medicine” and “Medicine for the Outdoors,” which are more portable versions of his longer reference guide. Reviewing the latter volume in the New York Times, outdoor writer Nelson Bryant noted that “tucked into your pack — it weighs a shade over one pound in paperback — along with a first aid kit tailored to your adventure, [the book] could turn potential disaster into mere unpleasantness.”
With Jay Lemery, also a specialist in emergency medicine, Dr. Auerbach wrote “Enviromedics: The Impact of Climate Change on Human Health” (2017).
Survivors include his wife of 39 years, the former Sherry Steindorf of Los Altos; three children, Brian Auerbach of Philadelphia, Lauren Auerbach Dixon of New Orleans and Daniel Auerbach of Wenatchee, Wash.; his mother, Leona Auerbach of Moraga, Calif.; a sister; and a brother.
Even with his extensive training in medical emergencies, Dr. Auerbach was unprepared for the devastation he encountered when he volunteered to travel to Haiti to care for victims of the earthquake that struck the Caribbean nation in 2010.
“Paul was there organizing humanitarian relief before most NGOs arrived and about a week before the US military,” Lemery wrote in a tribute posted on the website of the Wilderness Medical Society. “It’s an overused word, but he was truly heroic, and his actions embodied the highest attributes of medical-care providers at their very best. It was only years later that I understood how this experience took a significant toll on his psyche. I think he left part of his soul in that hospital courtyard in Port-au-Prince, but I know he never regretted a second of the time that he was there.”
Dr. Auerbach later helped create the Stanford Emergency Medicine Program for Emergency Response (SEMPER), which has been deployed during natural disasters including the typhoon that struck the Philippines in 2013, the earthquake that hit Nepal in 2015 and wildfires that ravaged California in 2018.
To anyone interested in exploring wilderness medicine, Dr. Auerbach offered the suggestion that they explore the wilderness first. “You can’t help anybody,” he said, “if you’re just scrambling to keep yourself alive.”
But it was also true, he noted, that sometimes the wilderness was not as far away as it might seem.
“It doesn’t have to be on the Arctic Circle or at the top of Mount Everest,” he once told the Associated Press. “You could be stuck in Central Park, but the same skills apply whenever you have limited resources.”
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