We’re in the business of sudden death. As prehospital, emergency, acute medicine and intensive care clinicians, facing the reality of the tragic loss of a living person, loved by their friends and family, is our day job. This makes me think we shouldn’t really have any reason to be ‘shocked’ or ‘surprised’. But we have every right to be sad.
The news came in the same week as the tragic Flight for Life Helicopter Crash in Colorado, bringing us another unwelcome reminder of the dangers of prehospital work. My HEMS colleagues and I are always mindful of the possibility that every time we get in the helicopter it could be our last, and I’ve no doubt John appreciated this reality when responding on his motorcycle.
I admired John as he was the quintessential resuscitationist. He was not bound by specialty or location in his passion for excellence in life-saving medicine. He was a master (and innovator) of advanced prehospital emergency medicine in a region where it still barely exists. He was supportive of emergency physicians providing emergency anaesthesia. He performed the first thoracotomy for more than a decade in one hospital, prompting a review of systems, equipment and training and bringing specialties together to embrace multidisciplinary trauma management. He inspired our friends across the world with his approach to intensive care patients.
Two weeks ago John and I gave two of the opening talks at the SMACC conference in Chicago. My talk went first – entitled ‘Advice to a Young Resuscitationist’. I attempted to list a number of tips that could help a resuscitationist become more effective at saving lives while surviving and thriving in our often traumatic milieu. The talk will be uploaded soon, and I’ve listed the pieces of advice below. What strikes me now like a slap across the face with a large wet fish is the realisation that John exemplified every one of these characteristics and habits:
1. Carve your own path that takes you on a richer path than that worn by trainees in a single specialty
John was an anaesthetist, an intensivist, and prehospital doctor.
2. Never waste an opportunity to learn from other clinicians – leave your ego at the door. See any feedback as an opportunity to learn and to improve, no matter how painful it is to receive.
Despite being among the best in his field, John would on occasion discuss challenging cases and ask if we could think of anything else that should have been done (our answer being, without exception, “no”).
3. Have the confidence and self-belief to perform actions you are competent to perform when needed, to avoid the tragedy of acts of omission.
John’s amazing talk on “crack the chest – get crucified” (when no-one else would) shows how he embraced this mindset: do what needs to be done – with honourable intentions – and manage the consequences later.
4. You can’t save every one, but you can make each case count. When a case goes wrong you need to change something – yourself, your colleagues or the system.
John was a super-agent of change wherever he operated. One beautiful example is how in one hospital the thoracotomy tray ended up being named after him!
5. Caring is so critical to what we do, and is one of the most important things to patients and their families.
As Greg Henry taught me (quoting Theodore Roosevelt) : ‘Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care’
John was gentle, kind, and humble. So many of his tributes remark on his compassion and dedication to patients.
6. Choose your colleagues & your environment well. Greater team cohesiveness is protective against burnout and compassion fatigue.
John was proud of the teamwork he enjoyed with his ICU colleagues, and worked with forward thinking colleagues who contribute significantly to #FOAMed.
7. Strive for balance in your life and your work. Consider part time working or mixing your critical care with a non-clinical or non-critical care interest.
John was revered and loved within the world of motorcycle racing, a passion he managed to combine with his flair for critical care.
8. Train your brain to be aware of and to utilise strategies that protect it against cognitive traps and avoidable performance limitations under stress – learn the hacks for your MINDWARE.
Many of us now introduce stressors into our simulation training to help us learn to deal with the adrenal load of a difficult resuscitation. But I doubt many of us can hope to achieve the intense focus and concentration under pressure that is required of motorcycle racers. John sent me a link to this video of racer Michael Dunlop a few weeks ago with the comment ‘How about this for a scare!’
9. Maintain perspective. It’s not all about you or your resus room.The most effective resuscitationists save lives when they’re not there. They work on the systems – the processes, the training, the governance, the audit, the research.
John was a brilliant educator and systems thinker. The care given at the roadside, in the ED, the ICU and the operating room at many sites is better because of the teaching he gave and the approaches he developed.
10. Understand that everything you say and do in a resuscitation casts memorable impressions in trainees’ minds like the tossing of pebbles into a pond, whose ripples reach out and out to affect so many future lives and deaths in other resuscitation rooms.
You can imagine the obstacles and personalities John faced when trying to improve care in the environments in which he worked. But through it all he remained a gentleman. Always constructive, always collaborative, always supportive. I’ve never heard him say a bad word about any named individual or criticise another specialty. He truly embodied the non-tribal spirit of SMACC, which sets an example for us all to aspire to, and will influence future resuscitation room behaviour in far-reaching locations.
11. Behave as you would want to be remembered, and be mindful of the extent of the ripples in the pond. But don’t let that put you off throwing the pebbles – embrace the challenge of the highs and lows and above all enjoy the ride, for it is awesome.
In just 35 years of life John saved the lives of many and changed the lives of many more. He knew how to throw pebbles and wasn’t afraid to point out the lack of emperor’s clothes around many traditional aspects of medical practice. And that smile seen in all the pictures of him shows there’s no doubt John enjoyed the ride, and it was awesome. Thanks to his wit, intelligence, teaching, charm, and resuscitation brilliance, he helped us enjoy it all the more too.
I spent a lot of time preparing my talk ‘Advice to a Young Resuscitationist’. It’s clear to me now that I needn’t have bothered. Sharing the stage with John, I could have saved everyone’s time by simply saying: ‘Try to be like THIS guy’.
I am extremely privileged to know him, to have learned from him, and to have shared some moments from his days at smaccUS.
We will mourn, we will remember, and we will honour him by being the best resuscitationists we can.
You can also honour him by signing the Northern Ireland Air Ambulance petition