Courtney Wilson-Kwok Won’t Stop Looking
During a particularly difficult mission, the search and rescue volunteer found resolve in her team members
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Courtney Wilson-Kwok told her story to producer Paddy O’Connell for an episode of The Daily Rally podcast. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Search and rescue actually has become my biggest passion. It’s something that if I were to win the lottery, it’s what I would do every day. You’re helping people, you’re outdoors, and you’re constantly learning.
Just when you think you know enough about something, someone throws you a curveball where you have to be innovative and you have to think outside of the box.
I have a couple of nicknames. Court, Wilson, C-Dubs. Someone called me Javelin at one point when I was working at a sports camp, because I was a javelin thrower in high school, and the kids at the sports camp thought that was hilarious. “You step out of line, I’m gonna throw you across the field.”
I live in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. As my regular day job, I’m a registered kinesiologist at the Ottawa Hospital where I do brain injury rehab, helping people with brain injuries get back to their day jobs.
I’m part of Sauvetage Bénévole Outaouais—Ottawa Volunteer Search and Rescue. You can call the team SBO-OVSAR for short. We are a volunteer search and rescue team that spans the provinces of Eastern Ontario and Western Québec. So we cover 58,000 square kilometers to help find missing and overdue people who have gone out into the bush. I love being outdoors, and being a member of the search and rescue team.
A search that we were on that really exemplified the work that this team does occurred in the summer of 2020. Late one night, we got a message through dispatch, and all we were told at that point was we’ve been dispatched for a search. Please show up at these coordinates with all of your gear. Bring a lot of water, it’s gonna be hot. I showed up early that morning ready to go. We went through our briefing and we were informed that we were gonna be searching for an elderly individual who had dementia who had wandered away from home the night before. Their family had reported them missing.
There was definitely a sense of responsibility when you see the family out there and they’ve got so much hope. You could tell there was a mixture of emotion. There was concern, there was stress. You almost saw a sense of relief seeing how many members had shown up in addition to all the police officers on scene, saying, OK, there are a lot of people here, they’ll find him. And that’s kind of what we held onto through the day.
It was about 86 degrees. It was a hot day. And we get told, “Lighten your packs.” It’s gonna be some very dense bush and we think, We’ll be fine, we train in this stuff all the time. What I didn’t know is this area was filled with what we call prickly ash, and it’s this invasive shrub or small tree. They have these large thorns and it creates this massive thicket. If you’ve ever read Harry Potter, it’s like being stuck in this devil’s snare where the more you struggle, the more it wraps itself around you, and the worse it gets.
So we finally get out there, we get deployed. Your job, with your GPS and your compass, and team members on either side of you, is you form this line. Because of how big this area was, the officers elected to have a much longer line—10, 11 people. I believe we were spaced three to five meters apart. So you’re going in a straight line and whatever’s in front of you, you got to go through it, unless it’s a massive tree. You’re bush whacking.
There was a lot of checking back and forth. “Hey, can you clear around this rock? Can you check under this log? Because I can’t see.” And that’s how you’re walking through this line, minding the person on either side and making sure that there is no stone left unturned.
We’re not just looking for the person, but we’re looking for clues. Anything to give us an idea of the direction they might be going in so that we can refine our search area. That could be keys, that could be clothing. It could be a cell phone, a wallet, a hat, a new water bottle, or a new granola bar wrapper. Something to suggest that somebody has been through here recently. We know with that kind of an area, people were not likely to go through there, so it would help to reassure us that we were on the right track. And we weren’t getting a whole lot of that.
The longer you go through the search, the more you start to think about what we call “lost person behavior.” Lost person behavior is something that our team uses to try and figure out where we need to start looking for people and what kind of areas they would be in. For someone with dementia, if you find them within less than 24 hours, there’s a 95 percent survival rate. Once it goes past that 24 hours, that survival rate drops to 77 percent, and so on and so forth. So we’re going on 24 hours here already, and you’re just praying that it’s not gonna be another day.
The longer the day goes on, the more stress starts to pile up. There are a lot of thoughts that are racing through my head. You start to question everything. Is it gonna go into an overnight search? Is it gonna go into a search the next day? Did I miss something? Is there something we should have been doing differently? How far into the bush did this person get, if they got there at all? Are we in the right area? I was definitely a little worried that we weren’t gonna find this person.
So we’re back in the bush, struggling through this prickly ash, we look like we’ve been on the losing end of a cat fight. People literally crawling on their elbows and knees through this bush. Looking at how hard the rest of your teammates are working, it motivates you to keep pushing forward. There was no sense of quitting. With this team though, you look at everyone, everyone’s gassed, exhausted, covered in sweat. It’s swampy, it’s soaking wet. Our boots are wet. And the further you get into this, the more worried you start to get.
At no point did we think we were gonna turn back. This team was gonna power through. We get to a point where someone stops the line. Everyone stays quiet. And then a whisper slowly starts to come down the line from one person to the next. And the whispers are that we found them.
My heart was pounding. I could hear it. I’m trying to control my breathing. Trying to be calm, to be collected. If they need me in there, then I’m ready to provide those skills and be there.
But I’m also worried. I don’t know what happened. I don’t know what the injuries are, if there are injuries. I didn’t know whether they were alive or not. It is maybe a number of seconds before we get that second update, but it feels like an eternity.
Finally the word spread down the line that the subject is alive and that we were getting ready to extract them, help get them out of the bush. And that is the biggest sigh of relief you could ever imagine. You start to swell up with tears a little bit, you want to jump up and down. You want to scream.
There were a lot of hugs while we waited to be told what they wanted us to do next. And you just sort of reflect on all of this work has finally become a success for you and this team. It’s just the best feeling in the world. And you know that this is why you do this. There is this quiet pride that you have, knowing that you helped bring someone home the other night, especially knowing that this is a full nonprofit organization. Nobody on this team gets paid. And it’s one of the reasons that this team is so close. You work so hard, and you have these huge victories, and it really is a cool thing to be part of.
I think one thing that was important about this search for me personally is that it reminds you to trust yourself. But even more importantly, you have to trust your team. I trust that the people around me know exactly what they’re doing, and they’re working just as hard, and everyone’s in this together, and that’s huge. The camaraderie with this team is amazing, and it’s a group of people who challenge me and inspire me every day. And so it reminds you when you go through this kind of an experience and you have the outcome that we’ve always hoped for, and we’ve trained for that, you just want to keep doing it. I want to do it every day. I want to be out there with this team.
If there was a time machine 20 years ahead, I’ll still be with this team. I’ll be with them forever.
I freaking love this team.
Courtney Wilson Kwok is a member of the Ottawa Volunteer Search and Rescue Team, a winner of the 2022 Defender Service Award, established by Land Rover. These awards recognize the nonprofits doing selfless service for their communities every day. You can learn more about Ottawa Volunteer Search and Rescue at sbo-ovsar.ca.