Flying doctor: How medic John Hinds is helping to make biking safer
By day, John Hinds works as an anaesthetist at Craigavon Hospital. But this week he's stepping on gas of a different sort at the North West 200 in a bid to save lives. Meet the medic on wheels
He is probably the only racing enthusiast at this weekend's North West 200 who will be hoping that he won't get to burn any rubber on the race track.
Dr John Hinds, from Tandragee, is one of a unique team of just two motorcycle-mounted medics whose job it is to reach injured racers quickly in the event of an accident.
In an environment that is a world away from his day job as an intensive care consultant and anaesthetist at Craigavon Hospital, Dr Hinds is poised to carry out emergency surgery and treatment on the roadside.
Dressed in full leathers with his helmet on and his BMW S1000RR parked up strategically with radio contact, he will spend this week ready to respond immediately along with his colleague Dr Fred MacSorley.
The two men, known as "the travelling doctors", are part of the Motorcycle Union of Ireland's medical team who are backed up by response vehicles staffed by more experienced doctors and paramedics.
It is a voluntary role which Dr Hinds gives up his spare time to fulfil and which he funds largely out of his own pocket.
A dedicated trauma specialist, he sees his life-saving role at race meetings as a labour of love and an opportunity to combine his two passions - motorbike racing and medicine.
"I started going to the races as a student and one thing led to another," he explains. "Going to the races two things impressed me - the race itself and the medical team.
"As a budding doctor and a motorcyclist I felt I wanted to help and give something back to the sport.
"I started going as an observer and then when I qualified as a doctor, I found myself working with the team more and more."
His diary is already starting to fill up, with a packed schedule ahead of him this season. As well as the NW 200, he will also don his leathers again for medical duties at Skerries, Walderstown, Kells (practice day), Armoy, the Ulster Grand Prix and Killalane.
The "travelling doctor" system has evolved over the years as a way of providing fast and life-saving medical care to riders at Irish road racing meetings.
The environment in which the medical staff work is unique and the circuits can vary from three to nine miles making them too long to staff with ground crews, like at British Superbikes, but too short to use a helicopter effectively, like at the Isle of Man TT.
The nature of these courses also makes it difficult to have a fast "first response" with a car or regular ambulance.
Dr Hinds and Dr MacSorley chase the warm-up and opening lap of each race or practice session, as this is historically when most serious incidents tend to occur.
During racing they will be among the first to hear of any accidents and are ready to respond immediately to assess, triage and begin treatment, until the response vehicles staffed by experienced doctors and paramedics arrive.
On average, Dr Hinds will cover around 4,000 race miles a year. The 35-year-old, who lives with his partner Janet Acheson (35), an obstetrician at Daisy Hill Hospital, now gives up most of his weekends in the summer months to be on duty at all the major race meetings.
Fortunately, it is a sacrifice which Janet fully supports and she often accompanies him to weekend meetings when her work allows.
This week the couple have used their annual leave from work to rent a cottage in Portrush to combine doctor duties at the North West 200 with a holiday.
Explaining how the system works, he says: "There are about seven or eight doctors on the team and there is myself and Fred MacSorley on the bikes.
"We are the first response vehicles and because it is a public road at the North West, it is quite difficult to bring the race to a stop.
"But we can get on our bikes and be at the scene very fast.
"It is something we are very good at as a team, and it's fair to say we are among the best in the world at dealing with trauma on the track side.
"If you are a fan of road racing then there is no better seat in the house than mine.
"You are giving something back to the sport, too.
"It is an absolute privilege to be involved in the way I am."
Tragically, as we know all too well in Northern Ireland, the dangerous nature of the sport means that as a medical team they have more experience than most at dealing with roadside trauma. It is this fact that has put them in demand right across the world to share their experience and expertise with other professionals in the area of trauma.
Dr Hinds has been invited to lecture to medical teams on the Gold Coast, Chicago, Sydney and London.
"We are recognised as a small group of people who enjoy doing what they are good at," he says.
"Worldwide trauma teams would be mainly using air ambulances, but the volume of incidents they would deal with are quite small compared to the volume of accidents we attend on a regular basis."
Trauma is an area of medicine Dr Hinds also deals with in his day job at Craigavon Area Hospital.
He also lectures in trauma science at the Queen Mary University in London.
It is an area of medicine he is quite passionate about and which he believes Northern Ireland lags well behind in, compared to the rest of the world.
He says: "I spend half of my time in Craigavon as an anaesthetist and half of it as a consultant in intensive care.
"I do deal with a fair amount of trauma; it is a significant part of my job.
"I've always been interested in the fact that Northern Ireland is behind when it comes to trauma care.
"We have an ad hoc system here and unlike the rest of the UK and most of Europe, we still don't have an air ambulance and no trauma network.
"In other countries there are more structures and processes in place. In Manchester, Leeds, London, Wales and Scotland if someone is critically injured, there are air ambulance teams ready to be dispatched.
"In Northern Ireland, there is no similar advanced pre-hospital care and victims are brought to the nearest small hospital. There can be significant delays in getting them to the major hospitals and sometimes they never get the transfer."
As a result, he points out, the survival rates for trauma patients are 25-40% better in the rest of the UK than in Northern Ireland.
"We do need an air ambulance here and a system in place to deal with trauma victims," he says.
When dealing with trauma, his considerable training in the area kicks in and it is this which he says allows him to deal with the tragic side of the job.
As part of the racing family, he often finds that when he's called to a crash, it is to attend to a friend.
"In some aspects it is just another job, but for me it is better to be there if someone I know crashes than not to be there," he says.
"You do get to know the riders pretty well and you are looking after your friends a lot of the time.
"It is part of medicine and there are huge rewards whenever you can take someone that is traumatically injured back from the dying process to full health."
One of the many good news stories which illustrate Dr Hinds' point is that of the remarkable recovery of French rider Franck Petricola.
Petricola (31) suffered multiple fractures and a head injury after crashing in practice at the North West 200 last year and was in a coma for several days.
The Frenchman was flown home after the meeting and has made a full recovery.
He careered into a lamp-post when he slid off his BMW superbike at Primrose Corner during superstock practice, a day after his birthday.
Petricola broke two vertebrae, his left arm, his right elbow and right leg, several ribs and suffered perforated lungs in the huge impact, as well as a serious head injury.
He was treated within seconds of the crash by Dr Hinds and his team, and was then transferred by helicopter to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast.
In a coma, his life hung in the balance for several days before he eventually regained consciousness.
He has made a full recovery and is back to race again at this year's North West.
Dr Hinds says: "Whenever you can take someone who is traumatically injured and bring them back from the dying process to full health, that is incredibly rewarding.
"To see Franck Petricola back racing this year is just brilliant. He was one of two riders we had to carry out track side surgery on last year.
"Surgery at the trackside is usually needed if the patients suffer collapsed lungs and it is critical to some riders. In these cases the team does a tremendous job.
"It is really rewarding to see Frank up and walking about again this year.
"Of course, the caveat to that is that if it had happened to a member of the general public they wouldn't have got the same level of care quite as quickly because we have no specialist trauma response system in place in Northern Ireland."
Because Dr Hinds feels so passionately about his profession, it meant everything to him this season when a sponsor came on board for the first time.
On hearing of his selfless work, Bridgestone offered to support the doctor with a season's supply of Moto GP inspired Battlax R10 tyres for the year.
Dr Hinds has already reaped the benefits at the Cookstown 100 and Tandragee 100, and now the North West 200.
He says: "I can't thank Bridgestone enough. The tyres are tremendous and were it not for the donation of them, I would struggle to continue in the role of race doctor.
"Because the courses are between three and nine miles long, they are too short for a helicopter and too long for an ambulance response.
"This makes my role more important as I can be on the scene quickly to administer initial triage and resuscitation.
"We get a small allowance, but it doesn't cover our expenses and every season we are out of pocket.
"Tyres alone have to be changed about five times a year because of the speed we do and each time costs between £250 to £300, which is significant expenditure.
"Getting the tyres given to us also means we don't have to run around trying to get that organised and so it is a big weight off our minds."
Fans on the frontline
- The Motorcycle Ireland Medical team is made up of road race fans who work for frontline emergency medical services as paramedics, advanced paramedics and doctors
- Together the team provides pre-hospital emergency care at all Motorcycling Ireland road racing events
- They bring over 100 years of combined experience at all levels of pre-hospital emergency care, using the highest standards of training and equipment currently available
- All of the team's funding comes from the rider's medical levy and supporters who generously give their time and money to ensure that the team is able to continue to provide the highest standard of care for both riders and spectators
- When a red flag incident requiring medical assistance is declared, all race traffic is stopped. Once the clerk of the course ensures that it is safe to do so, the motorcycle response units are despatched along with the response car
- The doctors on bikes carry basic equipment to deal immediately with life threatening problems
- The response car brings extra advanced paramedics and a doctor, as well as more advanced equipment to the scene. If the patient requires transport to hospital, an ambulance is usually provided by a voluntary ambulance organisation