Team 5 Veterans Redefine Wilderness Medicine

Originally founded in 2010 by veteran Eric Linder, Team 5 is a nonprofit veteran foundation that provides medical care in some of the most remote corners of the world. 

Linder, a decorated 30-year veteran with roots in law enforcement, UN Peacekeeping and the US and Israeli militaries, founded Team 5 out of a desire to help others. 

His organization sends elite special ops medical teams into some of the most remote wilderness areas on the planet. Each team consists of five members: A doctor/surgeon, two special forces medics, an oral surgeon and pediatric intensive care nurse. Together they combine their skills and survival experience to offer remote wilderness medicine to underprivileged humans around the globe.

This week we’re partnering with Team 5 to celebrate Zeagle’s 40th Anniversary. In honor of the occasion, we interviewed Linder about the nonprofit’s groundbreaking work in the realm of wilderness medicine.

How did Team 5 get started? 

I had just finished my residency, and one of my requirements was doing wilderness medicine down in a developing country, so I picked Belize. I spent a month down there with three different organizations during my residency doing remote care in the villages. I fell in love with it. 

I thought: ‘These people have nothing, they come from nothing, and they don’t know any different.’ After all, a lot of them live in villages and don’t know about modern technologies and things that can be done. 

I’m a pretty physical guy and I like the adventure component of having to get dirty and get out into these places. So, when I reached these areas and was able to help people, I really enjoyed it. 

What didn’t I like? There were always strings attached with these other organizations. Some of them were religious. Some of them were political. There was always some sort of agenda that was outside of simply giving care, and doing the right thing. 

So I decided I wanted to go and try to do something that had no political or religious strings attached, whatsoever. In order to do that, I decided that I was going to leverage veterans that already have all the training in dealing with expeditions and survival. They’ve already proven themselves because they’ve probably served in a war-torn area. 

While doctors and nurses typically work in hospitals, most of the veterans have been out in the field doing field care. So, I wanted to grab these types of people, and move forward. 

What was Team 5’s first mission?

We launched our first mission in Belize because I already knew the country a little bit. What happened was that we ended up crossing the ocean into Guatemala by boat. It was the only way to access a location I’d been to the year before with a Mayan chief. 

There were six to seven of us altogether. We went in there and found some Mayan villages and we did some really basic care. That’s the original mission we did. 

First we just did medical, then we found out that dental is a really big deal out there. Then we were doing some outpatient stuff and outpatient surgeries of infections that needed to be cleaned out, people having wounds from working with machetes. So we started doing outpatient care with minor surgeries. 

Then we went from doing medical/dental to medical, dental and plastic. So now we’re doing cleft lip, cleft palate and ears on the children. We’re now able to do all of that in the field with the added plastic surgeon, Keith. 

What health problems do you see most in the field?

We’re dealing with children’s and women’s health, to tell you the truth. A lot of deworming, a lot of sick kids, prenatal, OB stuff—I’ve even delivered out in the field before with our nurse, Brigit. I do ultrasounds, so I can do exams to make sure the baby is healthy, check the heartbeat and make sure the baby’s sitting in the right position. We’re doing prenatal vitamins for them, we’re giving them care, so, we see more clinical stuff of infections and small diseases. 

Although people like to see surgeries, and it’s good for Instagram and Facebook, we’re doing anywhere from 10-15 per mission, but we’re seeing on average over 1,100 patients. So, when you look at that, it’s a very small number, but it takes a lot of time. We can be in surgery for anywhere between 2-6 hours on one case, so it does take away from the normal clinical things we could be doing. Whether we’re going to do surgery or not is mostly dependent on location and need.

How do you recruit team members? 

We probably get 8-10 good ones a month that apply for Team 5, and a lot of it is by word-of-mouth. We don’t take anyone that’s not known by at least two other people. We’re veteran-founded and about 90% veteran when we deploy. 

Our three prerequisites are that you’re either a veteran, an ultra-athlete or a survival expert. Those are the three things that come into play to be part of the team. 

For the five medical personnel, a standard team consists of an MD doctor, two special forces medics/PAs, a dentist and a nurse. That’s the team that gets deployed—and that’s the team that works the best. 

What are the challenges of remote wilderness medicine? 

First of all you have to have team members that are willing to go to a location like that. It’s dangerous, it’s austere and it’s not comfortable. You’re constantly dealing with the elements. 

Let’s say we go to the jungle: We’re always wet, it’s over 90 degrees and 100% humidity. You’re dealing with mosquitos, living in a mud hut and sleeping either a hammock or a sleeping bag, which is hot. 

There are a lot of elements just getting out to the location, and then also getting hurt. It’s easy to get hurt because we’re going out there by airplane, boats; we’ve used horses before, donkeys, on foot—all this stuff to get to these locations. 

So there’s always a risk in that, and you’re so far away from anything that if something happens, you’re relying on your own medical team. We’ve actually had instances where we’ve had to work on team members for really serious stuff. 

Why the mix of different specialties? 

We’re lucky because the way we build the team—having one doctor/surgeon, two special forces medics/PA, a dentist and a nurse—all these people together, they make that team work together and more solid. They can solve any problem. 

If you had all doctors, all nurses or all medics, you can’t solve every problem. But having the mix of different specialties really creates the best team that’s possible to be out there. If you look at a special forces unit, it’s a very similar structure. 

We all work together and there’s no attitude. Nobody’s trying to impress, ever, because we all have our own lane and we stay in our own lane. The other thing is, from the special forces community, we’ve all been there, done that, and we all check our attitudes—and egos—at the door. 

We’re all on the same mission: to help other people.

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