Volunteers’ Week: Motorsport medics on the pandemic frontline
Motorsport may be on hold, but the medics who keep us safe in competition are bringing that experience and passion for saving lives to the fight against COVID-19.
Times of adversity tend to bring out the best in people, and so it is in motorsport. You can read elsewhere in this issue of Revolution how the resources, innovative spirit and technical expertise of the industry is equipping health services at home and abroad. At a human level the same is happening with the volunteer medics who help keep motorsport events safe in more normal times.
By nature, these doctors, nurses, paramedics and carers are driven by a love of the job, matched with a similar passion for motorsport, once the NHS scrubs are off at the end of the working week. As fans, the opportunity to get closer to the action is clearly attractive for them, but their dedication as volunteer medics is also an essential for the smooth and safe running of events we all enjoy, be that as competitors or spectators. The sport is clearly on hold for the time being but, as we’ve been finding out, skills, support networks and connections forged trackside or out on rally stages are what these healthcare professionals are now leaning on as they care for those hit hardest by COVID-19.
Here’s how. “Motorsport is what led to me joining the ambulance service as a paramedic,” says Chris Evans of Cam Rescue, one of many not-for-profit, volunteer staffed private ambulance teams serving motorsport events across the UK. “I first went out with Cam Rescue in 2012 as a trainee and, through that, had a complete change in career dreams. I was always going to be a school teacher, now instead I’m hoping to pursue a teaching career as a paramedic, and I’ve got motorsport to thank for that.”
“By nature these doctors, nurses, paramedics and carers are driven by a love of the job, matched with a similar passion for motorsport, once the NHS scrubs are off at the end of the working week”
Annemarie Harris is a paramedic with East of England Ambulance Trust and another member of the Cam Rescue family. Since the pandemic she’s been moved into a critical care role, which she describes as “a rapid learning curve” but one supported by the experiences she’s had in motorsport. “It’s inspired me to further my education and get a masters in critical care paramedicine, which will work well for rallies to come,” she says.
“My hobby is my career and I love what I do!” Given medics’ exposure to the results of what happens when motorsport goes wrong – sometimes tragically – how do they reconcile the dangers with this passion? Consultant anaesthetist Ben Shippey is chief medical officer for Wales Rally GB and has the best part of 25 years working as a motorsport medic at the highest levels, experience that brings with it a level of pragmatism. “If you go rallying, you do so with a reasonable expectation at some point you might hit a tree and it might end badly,” he says, “but most people in intensive care haven’t made that choice.” For that reason, he says, the life and death situations he faces each and every day are much more challenging, and happen with much greater frequency, than anything he’s encountered in motorsport.
Meaning on the rare occasions it has happened, he can draw on his experience to be a calming influence on those around him and help them manage the situation effectively. Going the other way, how are he and his colleagues adapting their out-of-hours skills to the current situation?
“I was always going to be a school teacher, now instead I’m hoping to pursue a teaching career as a paramedic, and I’ve got motorsport to thank for that”
“We all miss motorsport!” he laughs, before reflecting on what he brings from this world into his day job. “One of the reasons I enjoy motorsport is it encourages adaptability. In a hospital it’s very easy to find out what I need to know, but in motorsport you have to work with more limited information and resources. This forces you to think ‘what can I do now with the people and resources in front of me’. Similarly, the current situation has forced us to innovate and we’re now delivering critical care in environments perhaps not originally designed for this purpose, all the while wearing PPE, which all adds extra challenges.”
For her part Annemarie Harris draws similar strength from her motorsport work in her new frontline role. “It has taught me that time is short, we are not invincible and we should enjoy life while we can,” she says.
“It has been a really tough few months mentally and physically, but I cannot wait to get back to the smell of oil and tyres on a Sunday morning.” This combination of dedication, mental toughness, pragmatism and practical skills learned in the field is one that seemingly equips folk like Nathan, Ben, Chris, Annemarie and the many like them to operate effectively in the situation they now find themselves in. “Motorsport has made me a lot calmer,” says Nathan Hone, another Cam Rescue medic, before echoing Ben Shippey’s point on agile working.
“One of the reasons I enjoy motorsport is it encourages adaptability – in a hospital it’s very easy to find out what I need to know, but in motorsport you have to work with more limited information and resources”
“Exposure to incidents in remote forests helps me realise how lucky we are in the NHS to have the resources and skill mix we have. I also get more time to train and teach in motorsport, which allows me to keep my skills up, and this inherently benefits how I work normally.” So how does this relate to the frontline work he’s been involved with of late?
“The last few weeks and months have exposed us to a lot of exceedingly difficult decisions, decisions that need compassion, empathy and understanding,” he says. “This has continued to instil in me it is important to do what is right, not what is easy. This is an ethos I always try to follow, but one that has been proven due to recent events.”
Empathy and communication are, of course, a big part of any frontline healthcare job and ones Chris Evans draws on, both as a paramedic for North West Ambulance Service and in his motorsport work as a safety and medical radio marshal. “I got noticed for my ability to communicate clearly and precisely,” he explains. “I undertook a training programme to become a fully licenced Radio Controller and, in 2005, I gained my full licence, which I proudly hold today and run a small team of radio operators.” He considers rallying a release from the day job, but the skills transfer between the two has been a huge benefit in both. Indeed, on his first training session as a radio controller, he was thrown in at the deep-end after a fatal accident on a stage event.
“It has been a really tough few months mentally and physically, but I cannot wait to get back to the smell of oil and tyres on a Sunday morning”
“The moment the call came in that there had been a serious incident, I took a deep breath, regained my composure and continued to take calls from the scene as well as calls coming in from the stages that were still running,” he explains. “The event did continue, the remaining stages were finished and I had compliments from others on how I handled it but, on the way home, I pulled over and cried for a good 20 minutes as the whole thing hit me.” A sobering introduction but one that has equipped him to face the challenging situations COVID-19 has thrown his way.
“Working as a paramedic, I always say the job is 95 per cent communication and if you can connect with people of any age or walk of live, be it verbal or non-verbal, you are on to a winner,” he says. “When a call comes in I still take that deep breath, gain my composure and then adapt to who and what we are dealing with. With the current pandemic the role as a paramedic has changed, by way of having to don PPE for every single patient contact. Communication is slightly harder too, as many hospitals are not allowing visitors, which can be gut-wrenching, especially if you think this could be the last time friends or family see their loved ones.”
Suffice to say, he believes passionately this combination of a cool head, empathy and an ability to communicate clearly in stressful situations is one honed in motorsport that equips him to deal with the challenges the day job throws at him. These experiences help at a practical level too, Annemarie recalling one callout to a multi-car road traffic accident where one of the three casualties was trapped in an overturned car and left hanging from the seatbelt. She successfully extricated the patient and, keen to learn from it, discussed the scenario with Cam Rescue ‘parents’ Charley and Zoe Webber.
“They kindly offered to run some training simulations with the rally car shell and a mannequin,” she recounts. “As a team, we worked through several options and practiced removing the mannequin. It was a fabulous training exercise for both my own development as a paramedic and the team’s training for rally situations.” And although it may be a while before she’s hands-on with a rally car again, there are recurring themes in both roles she still encounters.
“I never offer to make a brew,” she laughs, “If I do there’s always an incident!” Overall the overriding theme is of a community pulling together, looking out for each other and eager to use the experience gained in motorsport to help a wider crosssection people in a time of national crisis. This takes many forms, both direct in terms of the work they’re doing at the sharp end, and also the broader support networks of shared expertise, looking out for each other’s families or just having a friendly voice at the end of the phone to share stories with and draw strength from.
We already owed these brave volunteers a huge debt of gratitude for their work in the sport and need to keep that in mind long after the sound of doorstep applause has faded and we’re all able to go racing again. With thanks to all the medics and volunteers who helped with this feature.