Dr John Hinds' colleague pays emotional tribute to his 'brilliant, caring and truly inspiring friend'
Exclusive: Racing doctor Fred McSorley recalls the day his 'wing man' was killed at a motorbike event
The call came through at 5.30pm on Friday, July 3, from Jan Simms, of the Injured Riders Welfare Fund. Dr Fred McSorley MBE is accustomed to emergencies disrupting his weekends, and he knew that his 35-year-old trauma colleague Dr John Hinds would invariably get to the scene of the accident before him, zooming along on his high-speed motorcycle.
But when Fred (61) answered the phone in his Portadown home that afternoon, nothing could have prepared him for the news that John, himself, had been in a serious accident and was "very ill" in Beaumont Hospital in Dublin.
"I contacted John's partner Janet, a doctor, who was working in Daisy Hill Hospital, immediately, and my wife and I met her and took her to Beaumont," he says quietly. "John was in theatre and they were trying to arrest the internal bleeding. He had a fractured pelvis and so on; very serious injuries.
"There was a vascular team working on him, an ortho team and interventionist radiology, and he was also getting a blood transfusion - the porters did a good job with that. It was hospital care at its best, normal standard procedure for any critically ill patient."
John never regained consciousness. Three weeks on, his old friend sighs at the memory of those desperate hours, his expressive eyes cast down on his desk.
"When it was apparent he wouldn't survive, in the early hours of Saturday morning, I went to get Janet's parents," Fred continues.
"The last person to arrive was John's brother from England, who made it there on Saturday morning. They had some time together before John finally died."
In contrast to the intermittent sunshine on the day of the crash, dour rainclouds are hanging over Lurgan when we meet in Fred's Church Walk surgery, in a gloomy room with exposed block (as opposed to brick) walls, and only one tiny window in the corner. There are grilles on the secured entrance of the building and a pong of drains from the dingy side-street, where two young RUC men, father-of-three John Graham (34) and father-of-two David Johnston (30), were shot dead by the IRA in 1997. Fred was one of the first on the scene of the murders but could do nothing to help the victims.
"The terrible sadness we felt at the time wasn't helped by headlines like 'Agony of Lurgan GP'," he recalls, cringing. "It was tacky and annoying - please don't put anything like that in about me and John."
Tall and trim, Fred McSorley is fine-featured and lightly tanned from his recent break in Donegal. He retreated there with his wife, Dr Alex Magee, to try to come to terms with his grief in the aftermath of John's funeral in Portaferry. The couple have three grown-up sons, all in the medical profession.
"We walked the beaches in Donegal," he says, suddenly brightening. "I have a great wife - I love her to bits. She is my rock. She worked here for a year, many years ago and the patients still ask about her.
"The patients have been marvellous since John's death, too," he says. "I love them and my staff. The girls at the front are brilliant. I'm lucky to have such good support. Many of my patients have been through worse."
This is a GP who genuinely cares about his patients, as did John Hinds, according to all who knew him. Both were also devoted to their voluntary trauma work at the race tracks, and that's where Fred wanted to be when he realised there was no hope for John. "The team who worked on him in Skerries had come through a very difficult resuscitation the previous night, and the racing was going on," Fred says. "I felt I should be with them; we'd worked together for many years.
"I asked Janet if I could go and she agreed right away. So, I said my goodbyes to John and left to do his shift. He would have done the same for me."
In what must have been the hardest shift of his life, surely the GP was on autopilot?
"Well, I'm well used to going into that mode; it's the nature of what we do," he says. "I think it was more difficult on the Sunday morning. My pager went off; there was a person trapped in a car that had flipped upside down and I went to that. John was dead but not yet buried. The accident was in Scarva, close to his house, and he would have been there first - he was such a fast driver! Anyway, the patient wasn't too seriously injured, so I know John and I would have had a cup of tea and a good chat, and that's really sad, to think we won't ever do that again."
He hesitates slightly but gathers himself quickly. "There was a fireman at the scene in Scarva who had pulled a man out of a van a couple of years ago. He was critically ill and didn't survive, but we kept him alive long enough for his relatives to say goodbye to him at the hospital. That fireman described John as 'an absolute gem'. All the paramedics felt the same about him." The stark unadorned room in this back-street surgery is not the setting you'd associate with such a well-spoken, charming and cultured man. The general drabness is lifted only by a doll's house and activity plaything on the floor, and by sparkly thank-you cards on the shelf above his desk.
Fred has worked here for 33 years, and, also, for the last 15, on the roads and racing tracks with his fellow 'racing doc'. John Hinds worked nearby in Craigavon Hospital as an anaesthetist. They were an unlikely looking pair of friends: John casual, with long hair and bushy red eyebrows; Fred clean-cut, silver-topped and carefully groomed.
"We were very close," Fred says warmly (he's not given to mawkishness). "John was very easy to get on with and an absolute dream to work with. He was a very caring person, quite softly spoken and quiet, and he had so many talents, but he'd never, ever blow his own trumpet. He was just a lovely guy; he had a great sense of humour, and he was extremely talented. I'll never forget him. He was truly inspirational."
Fred was honoured to play a prominent role at John's funeral, delivering a thoughtful and, at times, humorous eulogy.
"I knew John would have done the same for me," he says of the tribute. "We worked together on some extremely serious situations at the side of the road and we both knew only too well how motorcycle accidents can occur, but John never really spoke about death. The cause of his accident won't be known until there's an investigation. Unfortunately, as it was a practice session, there are not as many witnesses or video clips available." Fred wasn't with his wing man on that fateful day in Skerries, having pulled back a bit from races in the Republic recently.
He describes John as having been "a very capable motorcyclist".
"He'd been round the circuit several times that day and the conditions were good - there was no issue about new tyres or an untried system or anything. There was nothing different.
"The paramedic team did some remarkable work on him but he had very serious injuries. He trained those guys and spent a lot of time with them, and tragically, they went out thinking they were going to a fallen rider, and it was John. He had a Garda escort to Beaumont hospital but his injuries were not survivable."
The awful loss brings back memories of countless other accident scenes Fred and John were called to, on and off the racing track. Both attended Robert Dunlop, on May 15, 2008, when he suffered severe chest injuries in a 160mph crash during a practice session at the North West 200. Robert died at 10pm that night, in the Causeway Hospital, Coleraine.
"That was very difficult. John did his best but sadly, to no avail," Fred recalls, quiet again. "He always tried his very best. There was a patient of mine who was kicked by a horse and had awful injuries to his chest. He was admitted to a peripheral hospital, where John was a first year junior doctor, and I know this man would have died if it weren't for John.
"There was very poor anaesthesia cover that weekend and the Royal wouldn't take the patient. John worked on him all night and into the next day, far in excess of what a junior doctor could do. I see this man regularly; I asked him if he knew his life had been saved by this very junior doctor. He had no idea, of course. John was exceedingly bright. A star pupil. And he saved brains as well as lives. I remember this brilliant rider who crashed and suffered severe head and leg injuries; he wouldn't be alive and back to normal today if it wasn't for John. Fractures can heal but one's personality can be changed radically as a result of trauma; concentration problems and so on, and that can be devastating for a family. John had a real talent for preventing those problems with the right intervention at the right time."
Although he's evidently one of the good ones in this world, Fred doesn't believe in the next, and is not convinced by recent medical studies which have shown evidence of consciousness in patients declared brain dead.
"When you're dead, you're dead," he states bluntly, tapping his computer keyboard to find a picture of John. "There's no turning back. I've seen death too many times, and I prefer to practice rather than preach, or worship. Some people are very spiritual and that's fine. John wasn't acutely, but he was very honourable. Yes, that's the right word for him, honourable.
"I don't feel he's around any more but his influence remains."
In the absence of faith, how does Fred cope with his grief? It's something, as GP, he often has to address with his patients.
"You appreciate what you have and what that person meant in your life, and how privileged you were to have had that person like that in your life. You can suffer such loss, but you are not alone.
"John's partner Janet is coping as best as one would expect. She is in the very early stages of grief and her response had been appropriately dignified."
During his life, John campaigned hard for an air ambulance to help injured people, in often remote areas, to reach hospital more quickly. Northern Ireland is the only region of the UK to not have air ambulance cover. At John's funeral, his family and friends urged people to help make a reality his dream of a first class trauma network with an emergency helicopter for all of Northern Ireland.
In five years' time, Fred is convinced that John would have had his air ambulance and training service up and running. And within the next two years, he would have been a professor of trauma medicine in Northern Ireland, a role he would have relished, according to his friend.
"John? He never got nervous about anything. He was fearless in some ways but he also was respectful. He learned a lot from the military and he had the patient's best interests at heart - that's a cliché but it's true.
"He alone was uniquely placed to revise the service - who's going to take notice of a GP? But I think it's one of the best jobs in the world. I love it, the one-on-one nature of the job. It's not always appreciated; I worry about the drain on the NHS. I mean, what are those guys up to there in Stormont? They're an embarrassment, aren't they?
"All I can do is continue on, but John was number one," he concludes. "Nobody did it as well as he did. I'll have to find someone and train them up, and continue to do my best for patients at the side of the road."
To sign the petition for an air ambulance service in Northern Ireland, log onto http://chn.ge/1JFkFSZ