Flying Doctor Service

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I was recently asked to write a brief article on the birth of the Wyre Forest Flying Doctor Service. There follows the effort which was ultimately published.

 

 

The Kidderminster and District Primary Medical Care Service
Otherwise known as


THE WYRE FOREST FLYING DOCTOR SERVICE

It is often difficult to pick a defining moment in one’s life but, when you can, it invariably meant a major change in direction of one sort or another.  In June 1979, some 5 years after moving to Kidderminster, I was travelling in my MGBGT to visit my, and my wife Isobel’s parents in South Wales. The two children aged 7 and 5 were tucked up in the back as we were approaching Ross-on-Wye on the M50 when I saw what appeared to be a vehicle coming to rest in a field having gone off the motorway and dropped some 30 feet (yes, I still think in old units) down an embankment. When I got closer, it transpired that the vehicle was a minibus and its path down the embankment into the field was littered with bits of the bus and bodies. There followed a harrowing afternoon until the carnage had been sorted out and we were able to continue our journey. But what sticks out in my mind was how absolutely useless I felt at that major incident.

I had qualified as a doctor in Liverpool in 1969 and, after completing my years as a junior in hospital, we moved into General Practice in Kidderminster in 1974. The first few years were spent establishing myself and it was not long before I accepted the fact that I was a practical rather than a theoretical type and preferred getting my hands dirty in the surgical side of General Practice. Be that as it may, my attendance at that major accident brought home to me how badly equipped I was to deal with such an unexpected scenario. To give you an idea of what I mean, one of my actions on the day was to perform a tracheostomy on a girl, whose face had been crushed, using a farmer’s dirty penknife and the plastic tube of a Bic Biro!

After a lot of reading, attendances at conferences with like minded individuals, discussions with colleagues and ambulance personnel at both senior and workforce levels, I came to the conclusion that the best way to attack the subject was to provide a well equipped team of doctors who, under the direction of ambulance control, would turn out to assist ambulance men at serious incidents. It was not an easy path we trod and were met with huge opposition from some general practitioners, hospital doctors, ambulancemen and administrators who all felt that we were sticking our noses in where they didn’t belong. On the other hand, there was significant support from a senior ambulance officer who knew what we wanted to do, some other GPs (including the timeless Dick Herbert) and two hospital anaesthetists who knew that rapid intervention could be life saving. We also had tremendous support from a friend (who shall be known as John) who became our fund raising co-ordinator and press officer.

Between 1979 and early 1981, John cajoled, persuaded and even dragged protesting donors to our side of the argument. Our initial plan was, by April 1981, to raise the £1000 needed to put the first doctor ‘on the road’; what actually happened was that by April some £7000 had been raised and all five of the original Flying Doctors (the term was adopted after a front page article in the Kidderminster Shuttle used it with tremendous enthusiasm) were equipped and active.

Over the next 20 years the number of active doctors varied between four and seven with faces coming and going. To work as a flying doctor was a voluntary commitment where you had to be prepared to drop everything and turn out at the request of ambulance control – I well remember turning up at one incident in a dinner suit! But no one ever grumbled; my patients never complained and were always prepared to sit and wait for me to return to surgery with a ‘what have you been to doc?’; my partners always supported me and covered my duties if I was called out unexpectedly; and the ambulance men gradually came round to accepting the flying doctors as working colleagues rather than threats to their job security.

In the initial stages the £1000 per doctor covered what would now be described as a very basic kit including a radiotelephone linked to ambulance control. However over the 20 years, the public of the Wyre Forest were unstinting in their generosity to the extent that in the latter years we were each equipped with what can only be described as a mini operating theatre including heart monitors and defibrillators costing some £4000 each and state-of-the-art communication equipment. The flying doctor service also supported the local casualty department and ambulance service in terms of equipment and training to the extent that even our strongest opponents in the early stages became supporters!

 I apologise but the actual statistics have been lost but, if my memory serves me correctly, from 1981 to 2002, the flying doctor service was called more than 8000 times to incidents including train and car crashes, minor aircraft crashes, industrial incidents, heart attacks  and many requests from local GPs who needed our equipment and expertise. Naturally, on many occasions, we were simply not needed on scene but were proud to boast that we never failed to turn out when asked. It was always difficult to assess our usefulness in terms of relief of pain and suffering and even life saving procedures; suffice it to say that there are many people in the Wyre Forest area whose quality of life would be a lot different if we were not involved.

So what happened to the Flying Doctor Service?  Well, from the early 90s, the service became more and more involved and supportive in the training of ambulance men to paramedic standard and by the turn of the century we were needed far less often. At the same time the dirty words ‘response time’ came onto the scene and an ambulance officer at ambulance control (who shall be nameless and eventually was sacked) resorted to turning out the flying doctor service to incidents as trivial as nose bleeds if he didn’t have an ambulance available – simply to polish up his ‘response times’.

And so the Flying Doctor service, as it had existed for 21 years, faded into history. The equipment was donated to the hospital, ambulance service and similar first response organisations and all money left over (something like £100,000 was raised  from day one) was donated to the Kemp Hospice. But, as happens so often, a Phoenix rose from the ashes and is making its presence well felt in the West Midlands and Hereford & Worcester.

Barrie Davies
(Flying Doctor call sign – ZULU 1)
 

 

 

 

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