‘The air ambulance was an extension of the love John and I had for each other... I’d always have been angry with myself if I hadn’t got it over the line for him’
The partner of the late Dr John Hinds, the motorcycle medic they called the Flying Doctor, has revealed how his anger over a waste of lives after major trauma incidents drove him on in his relentless campaign for the introduction of an air ambulance in Northern Ireland. And although his dream was realised, John didn’t live to see it, because he died after a crash at a race meeting — the sort of place where he’d helped countless riders in the years before his own personal tragedy.
And now a powerful new BBC Northern Ireland documentary, which includes graphic footage of air ambulance crews responding to road, farm and industrial accidents, pays homage to the role that John played in getting the air ambulance off the ground to deliver crucial trauma care to people in need here in the summer of 2017.
And his partner, Janet Acheson, whom he met at Queen’s University` Belfast, where they were both medical students, delivers her own touching tribute to — and talks of her pride in — the determined campaigner in the hour-long documentary, Air Ambulance and the Flying Doctors.
The value of the service he championed is underlined repeatedly in the programme by medics. One of them, Stuart Stevenson, spells it out in the starkest of terms, saying: “The importance of the air ambulance is about getting clinical interventions quickly to the patient and stop that dying process, because a lot of the times when we have arrived with a patient, they have already entered into the process of dying.”
During the documentary, Janet allows the cameras into what she calls John’s “man-cave”, a study in their home, which used to be the exclusive preserve of her partner, whose racing leathers still have pride of place alongside eight of his safety helmets, some emblazoned with the word “Doctor”.
Janet also talks of her admiration for the vital work of the Helicopter Emergency Medical Service (HEMS), which took to the skies of Northern Ireland two years after John’s accident, at the Skerries 100 road races near Dublin.
And in the documentary, the stories of survivors who say they owe their lives to the air ambulance are testimonies to The late Dr John Hinds and his partner Janet Acheson. Above, HEMS medics (from left) Dr Campbell Brown, Glenn O’Rourke and Stuart Stevenson what John had fought for in his crusade. Janet says that, right from the start of his studies, John wanted to help people and quickly insisted that his ideal environment would be in the cutting edge of intensive care as an anaesthetist. She says John was also keen to find another outlet for his skills in road racing, which he’d loved for years.
Another member of the flying doctor team, Dr Fred McSorley, says John was a willing and eager recruit to the team of rapid responders on motorbikes, who offered their services at race meetings to help injured riders.
“For me, he was a wonderful combination,” says Dr McSorley. “He was damned quick on a bike, he was a fabulous pair of hands and a brilliant brain. Even as a junior anaesthetist in training, it was obvious this guy was exceptional.”
In a TV interview from 2007, it was clear that John was warming to his task on the roads, saying: “Hospital medicine has become very full of protocols and guidelines, but out here it’s a wee bit more seat-of-your-pants medicine and it’s very much rewarding.
“You don’t have a sterile operating field and you are not in a resuscitation bay.
You’re very often in a ditch somewhere. So, it’s totally different. But that’s where the experience of the team you’re working with comes in. These guys really have seen it all.”
It wasn’t long before the “student” brought a level of expertise to what the flying doctors were doing, reversing the roles, in that he became the mentor from whom the rest of the team could learn.
But John was also soon pressing for holes in the medical system here to be filled. Dr McSorley says: “We had led the way in the 1970s. Northern Ireland was really at the forefront of medical innovation, because we were suffering the dreadful Troubles. But we had fallen way behind in the provision of trauma care.
“If you were involved in a road traffic accident in the Belfast area, you might get to hospital pretty quick, but if you were stuck in a car in Pomeroy, or underneath a tractor, these people weren’t doing as well.”
Dr McSorley says John did a huge amount of work, along with other colleagues, to highlight the need for a fully co-ordinated regional traumatic network service. And central to his call was the setting up of an air ambulance service.
Janet says she and John went to Australia to see the HEMS in Sydney.
“That proved to him what he wanted to do,” adds Janet, who thought her Doctor Fred
McSorley Violet McAfee at Station Road in Portstewart where she was almost killed while watching the North West 200 in 2015
partner was advocating a move Down Under. “But he said, ‘We will do this in Northern Ireland’.”
The couple knew it would be a difficult road, but John started to knock on doors. “That was typical John. He was up for the challenge,” says Janet.
As serious discussions began about overcoming the obstacles facing the advocates of an air ambulance, John Hinds became more and more vocal, telling the authorities the introduction of the HEMS would not be as costly as the naysayers thought.
Janet Acheson tells the programme-makers: “He found it extremely frustrating. All the time, people were dying and that was really what made him angry.”
She says he felt it would take a major incident to focus attention on the HEMS debate.
And that came at the North West 200 in 2015, when spectator Violet McAfee was mown down by a motorbike which had just been involved in a collision.
The Irish Coastguard helicopter had to be enlisted to take Violet to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast and John Hinds went on TV to talk up the benefits that a HEMS chopper would bring here — and not just to motorbike racers, or fans.
“It would be a real game-changer,” he said. “We know that other countries who have implemented the system have reduced trauma deaths up to 40%.”
Two months later, John Hinds tragically died from multiple traumatic injuries in the intensive care unit of a Dublin hospital after an accident at the Skerries 100.
Janet took a call from Fred McSorley and instantly recognised the chilling import of his words: “Are you on your own?”
She knew the phrase was never followed by good news and she got to Dublin in time to spend “quality time” with John before he passed away.
His death stunned the motorcycling community and Stephen Davison, a journalist who has an intimate and expert knowledge of the sport, says: “Whenever you do something that dangerous, the law of averages cuts in, but it was still a big shock with John, because he wasn’t racing. He was a person who looked after people.
“For a lot of the riders, there was a great unease afterwards, because this was the guy who had their back. So, what now?”
Janet was astonished at the response from bikers and emergency services as she led the cortege bringing John’s body back north from Dublin. Mourners were on every bridge over the road.
She says: “There was a quiet comfort in that, because he had made a difference in people’s lives.”
Afterwards, Janet says the campaign for an air ambulance was spurred on by people-power and, in March 2016, eight months after John’s death, it was announced that funding would be made
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