John Hinds: The Air Ambulance legacy of road racing's doctor

By Ian McTear
BBC Northern Ireland

Media caption,
John Hinds combined his two passions for motorbiking and working at the cutting edge of intensive care

The story of how Northern Ireland's Helicopter Emergency Medical Service (or Air Ambulance) came into being is inseparable from that of the life - and death - of John Hinds.

From the motorcycling enthusiast's early days in medical school, his focus was on working at the cutting edge of intensive care.

He eventually combined these two passions to join the small team of so-called flying doctors at races, who used their motorcycles to get to the scene of an incident within seconds.

He led the campaign for an air ambulance service to be introduced in Northern Ireland and had met with the then Health Minister Simon Hamilton to discuss the issue.

Fast support

He met his partner, Janet Acheson, while they were at medical school.

She said John Hinds always wanted to help treat riders who had crashed, at the scene of the accident.

Image caption,
John Hinds met Janet Acheson when they studied together at medical school

"He always liked bikes, he always followed the bikes. I think it came from nowhere, it wasn't like it was a family that followed road racing.

"It was very much something that he had a passion for."

He and the medics he worked with soon realised that the only way to get swift care to injured riders - as well as trauma victims across Northern Ireland - was to have an air ambulance.

So the seeds of the campaign were sown.

Medical innovation

John Hinds and Dr Fred McSorley often rode just behind the racers, to provide medical support as soon as possible.

Dr McSorley explained: "You carried enough equipment to try and correct those real life-threatening situations, like an obstructed airway, catastrophic haemorrhage, collapsing lung.

Image caption,
John Hinds crashed on the Skerries course in Dublin, suffering multiple injuries, which proved fatal

"We could see that it was starting to make a difference, because even in the early stages there were some very critical injuries that we managed to stabilise and get riders to hospital."

He said John Hinds had a 360-degree view of trauma and quickly realised there were big holes in the system.

"We had led the way," he recalled. "In the 1970s, Northern Ireland was really at the forefront of medical innovation, because we were suffering the dreadful Troubles.

"We had fallen way behind in the provision of trauma and if you were involved in a road traffic accident in the Belfast area, you might get to hospital pretty quick.

Image caption,
The main obstacle for getting an air ambulance in place was funding

"If you were stuck in a car in Pomeroy, or underneath a tractor, these people were not doing well, even when they got to places like Craigavon, or Altnagelvin, or Enniskillen.

"John used to spend hours on the phone trying to get these critically ill people to be accepted properly, because there wasn't a regional trauma centre.

Image caption,
Dr Janet Acheson said the air ambulance campaign was an extension of the love that she felt for John Hands

"There wasn't joined up thinking."

Dr Hinds and Dr Acheson went to Australia to see how the HEMS (Helicopter Emergency Medical Service) operated there.

Eventually the NI Ambulance Service got involved along with the Air Ambulance NI charity, which lobbied for funding.

The main issue remained getting the money to set it up and then securing the funding to meet the running costs.

Inevitable accident

Dr Acheson said: "He found it extremely frustrating and at the time people were dying and that was making him angry.

"In some ways he was waiting for the inevitable incident, that was going to grab the public's attention, to shine the necessary light on the topic and the North West 200 in 2015 and Violet McAfee's accident was really that catalyst."

Image caption,
The accident that injured Violet McAfee at a race was a catalyst that gave John Hinds' campaign added momentum

Violet McAfee was watching the race with friends when one of the bikes broke apart, hitting a car and then her.

The Irish Coastguard helicopter was called in to take her to hospital.

Janet Acheson said it was, in effect, an air ambulance operation.

"The Irish Coastguard were able to provide the platform to get the patient to the right hospital, which at that stage would have been the Royal as the major trauma centre," she said.

"It was good, because it was lives saved."

John Hinds took this opportunity to again highlight the need for an air ambulance service.

Image caption,
Dr Hinds provided medical care at motorcycle race events

His wife said at this point, the campaign really began to gather momentum.

Just two months later, John Hinds was on duty again at the Skerries Road Races, in County Dublin.

He crashed on the course suffering multiple injuries, which proved fatal.

Eight months later, in March 2016, it was announced funding would be made available for an air ambulance.

Image caption,
Eight months after Dr Hinds' death, funding was made available for an air ambulance

It went into service in July 2017 and responded to more than 500 emergencies in its first year of operation.

Janet Acheson sums up her husband's campaign like this: "The people really seemed to engage with the message John had about trauma care.

"That gave me a purpose, a reason to get out of bed in the morning, that John was not here to finish this - it was an extension of the love that we felt for each other."

Air Ambulance and the Flying Doctors is on BBC One NI at 21:00 on Monday, 12 November

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