Patients on the Playa


Physicians, Nurses Enjoy “Food for Caregivers” at Burning Man

Togetherness. A sense of belonging. Those are often named as highlights of Burning Man for those that make it out to the playa. As it happens, the good vibes are extended to the caregivers who see hundreds of patients during the week-plus event.

“They are in a harsh, demanding environment that provides exceptional and timely care as part of the ticket price,” said Bret Frey, MD, a local emergency physician that has worked at Burning Man. “Our job is to get them back out having fun, so they just have a ton of gratitude, and I tell you, that is food for caregivers.”

Frey is one of dozens of caregivers that have made the trek to the Black Rock Desert. Another long-timer is Kristine Strand, RN, from Renown Regional Medical Center’s ER.

“We get people stopping by all day long at the tents,” Strand said. “They give you necklaces and hugs and even ice cream. We even have people come in to say thank-you from helping them out during the previous year when they were hurt. “

This past Burning Man marked the 10th one for Strand, while Frey has been there three times. The current contingent of Burning Man caregivers is put together by Humboldt General EMS of Winnemucca. That health network finds the caregivers, including a group affiliated with Renown.

They definitely stay busy in the desert. Frey said that about 300 patients are seen every day at Burning Man, while caregivers stay for an average of four days.

“I had a shift there on a Thursday from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m., and I personally saw over 80 patients,” he said. “These weren’t just scrapes and cuts. These were people who were really sick, like dislocations, and I even put two people on ventilation.”

One of Strand’s first-ever Burning Man patients was a surprise to her: “There was a 94-year-old man who broke his ankle because he jumped off of an art car. Here is this elderly person who you wouldn’t think would go out to the playa, but they have all ages and all types there.”

This diverse group is being seen by a variety of caregivers. In recent years, lab services, pharmacy and x-ray techs have been present. Strand said some of the workers are strictly volunteer – she mentioned university students that were providing x-rays last year, working to get in hours for their eventual training.

No matter the skill level, the experience is likely an eye-opener for those who’ve never been to the Burn. Though, Strand and Frey were quick to point out that perceptions on the event are skewed, at least from their view in the medical area.

“Everybody’s first response when I tell them I work Burning Man is that everyone is on drugs and everyone is naked – well, that’s not true,” Strand said. “There is a small percentage of the population that are like that, but a majority are not.”

Frey went a step further, saying that Burning Man is on the safe side compared to what he sees daily in the ER. “If you took all the bars in Reno and all the stuff we see from those places, it’s way safer,” Frey said. “ It’s very reasonable, not over and above what you’d see in a city of 50,000 people.”

Both caregivers definitely carry that Burning Man spirit with them to the event. Strand is a fire-spinner, while they both laughed when Dr. Frey gave away his Burning Man alter-ego name: Dr. Mojito.

“We all have a professional facade if you will, but there is another side to each and every one of us that comes out when we go to Burning Man,” he said. “It’s really enjoyable to see other people in this way.”

Plus, it’s a chance for some bonding time that may get lost in the bustle of the Biggest Little City.

“It’s a great opportunity to go outside of the general work environment and get to know each other better,” Strand said. “It’s very much like a staff retreat and it’s definitely brought that group of us closer.”