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Suffolk Accident Rescue Service doctor Andy Mason retires after 40 years saving lives

PUBLISHED: 13:49 22 November 2014

Dr Andy Mason and Dr Fiona Virgo pictured last year, ready for a Suffolk Accident Rescue Service voluntary shift.

Dr Andy Mason and Dr Fiona Virgo pictured last year, ready for a Suffolk Accident Rescue Service voluntary shift.

Volunteer Dr Andy Mason has spent more than 40 years dashing off to crashes and medical emergencies, and saving lives. On the day of his last shift, he told STEVEN RUSSELL why he wanted to do it and how he's coped with tragedy

Dr Andy Mason at the scene of an accident on the A140 at Coddenham in 2000.Dr Andy Mason at the scene of an accident on the A140 at Coddenham in 2000.

It takes a special kind of person to go to a three-car crash on the A140 involving 12 people − three of them children − and tend the casualties for 45 minutes before the first ambulance arrives. Thankfully, Suffolk has a committed corps of them.

I’m hoping Dr Andy Mason’s words are being absorbed by the convivial hubbub of this homely country pub. If they carry, they’re liable to put diners off their lunch.

We’re talking life and death, and the gossamer-thin line that often separates them. He knows them only too well, after more than 40 years as a volunteer specialist, striving to keep alive the victims of dreadful accidents, stabbings, heart attacks and similar emergencies.

A Suffolk Accident Rescue Service picture from last year, showing Dr Andy Mason, Dr Fiona Virgo and Ben HallA Suffolk Accident Rescue Service picture from last year, showing Dr Andy Mason, Dr Fiona Virgo and Ben Hall

He’s sought to put himself on call 365 nights a year – ready to drop everything, or rouse himself from his slumbers, during moments of crisis. Since 1974 he’s attended more than 2,000 incidents – all on an unpaid basis – as a member of the charity Suffolk Accident Rescue Service. That’s an average of more than one drama a week, over those 40 years.

“I’ve seen some awful things,” he admits. “I’ve seen people shot, stabbed, burnt to death, killed in jet aircraft, killed in gliders, killed in light aircraft, run over by trains, run over by trucks, drowned, struck by lightning... virtually any method of injury and death I’ve seen in 40 years.

“There isn’t much that can faze me now. But you’ve got to have a certain philosophy in life, because if you don’t have that it could affect you adversely.”

What’s his?

Dr Andy Mason, who this week retired from SARS after more than 40 years of voluntary service as an emergency doctorDr Andy Mason, who this week retired from SARS after more than 40 years of voluntary service as an emergency doctor

“I hesitate to mention it, but I have a Christian faith and I was inspired to do this work by the parable of the Good Samaritan. When I was a boy I heard this and thought ‘Goodness me’.”

The story is about a man coming to the aid of a stranger who has been beaten up, robbed and left for dead. The Samaritan tends the injured man’s wounds and pays for him to recover at an inn.

“And, at the end of the parable, Jesus says ‘Go and do likewise.’ That really stuck in my mind and that’s probably what stimulated me to do medicine. When I found out about the accident rescue service, this fitted so perfectly with the Good Samaritan. And the very fact I’m not paid for it is actually what appeals.”

Dr Andy is too obliging for his own good. It’s a special day – the 66-year-old’s very last on-call shift for the Suffolk Accident Rescue Service came to an end only a few hours ago − and he ought to be marking it in a much more celebratory way than fielding my inane questions. His only reward is an Americano coffee. It doesn’t seem enough.

It wasn’t a quiet finale, either, for he was alerted at 6.03am to an odd incident in a place he’d never before been: Aldham Tye, near Hadleigh. There were suggestions of people in a burning car, after a road accident. Happily, the fire was out and there was no sign of any casualties...

There was more to do, though, as Andy had to drop off the SARS response vehicle at Wattisham before returning to his home between Bury St Edmunds and Stowmarket for our rendezvous.

We adjourn to the local pub and I learn it’s actually a very momentous week. Tuesday saw his last day looking after the jockeys at Fakenham racecourse in Norfolk − one of the paid jobs that have allowed him to devote his free time to pre-hospital emergency work.

Wednesday brought the SARS AGM, an official farewell and a meal for a large gathering. His shirt was officially retired, too, and framed.

Will he miss the buzz?

“I’ll be OK. I’ve closed a lot of chapters – I ‘closed’ general practice; I ‘closed’ my rugby career; I used to sing with a band called The Travelling Raspberries and I did a sort of Elvis tribute act, with my triplet daughters. They were called the Masonettes!

“A lot of people locally remember that. When sometimes I’ve been trying to come across as erudite, as the wise doctor, somebody will pipe up and say ‘I know you… you used to do Elvis, didn’t you?’ Completely pulls the rug from underneath you!”

Andy Mason’s a Yorkshireman, born in Huddersfield. He went to Barts medical school in London, where it seems his interview was more concerned about his prowess on the rugby field!

The dean was determined Barts would win the United Hospitals Challenge Cup, which it hadn’t held for 30 years or so. With a squad that included county players and even some internationals, it then won the trophy a couple of times.

Andy himself went on to play for Middlesex, Cambridgeshire and Suffolk, and enjoyed a spell as captain of Bury St Edmunds Rugby Club.

Wife Jane also trained at Barts. They had a son, now in his early 40s, and Andy set his sights on becoming a surgeon. Then he and Jane had triplet girls. So, four children under the age of 16 months or so…

“My father-in-law, who was a general practitioner in Cambridge, sat me down and said ‘You’re not going to be a surgeon. You’re going to be a general practitioner and I’ve found the practice for you.’” Andy had a trial at Woolpit and was there 11 years. The day he started – Monday, April 1, 1974 – was also the day he linked with SARS. The surgery was heavily involved with the charity “and I took over all the equipment from the partner I was replacing. It just went with the job!”

He would have carried on as a GP, volunteering for SARS in his free time, but for an accident while playing rugby in north Norfolk that left him with a ruptured spleen and – worse – a damaged pancreas.

Andy had major surgery in London, and then a decision to make. Should he return to general practice or think about something else? The second option won the day. “I took on things to fund my accident work, which is something I really wanted to do.”

He’s long been a lover of horses, so work for the British Horseracing Authority has combined that passion with trauma medicine. Andy worked at Newmarket from 1986 and was senior racecourse medical officer for about half his time there. He also worked at Huntingdon, having his last day at each of the three courses this month.

Other work he’s done over the years includes occupational health duties for Baxter healthcare at Thetford and at the bacon factory in Elmswell. He also became the senior doctor at Shrubland Hall, an upmarket health farm at Coddenham.

Andy takes a sip of coffee and reflects: “All these doors opened up and I’ve had this really rich medical life, even though the earnings I’ve had since then [when he left general practice] have been nothing like I could have earned.

“But I’ve never regarded success 
in life by how much money you’ve got in the bank; it’s how enriched you feel by what you’re doing and 
the feeling you’re able to contribute to society and help other people. That’s something, I think, I’ve been able to do.

“I have to say I’ve got a wonderful wife. Why, and how on earth, she’s put up with me all these years, doing this sort of work…

“She knows it’s a priority for me and, whatever we’ve got organised, if a call comes in, then I would feel morally obliged to respond, rather than go out to dinner or whatever.”

The last proper holiday he and Jane had was in 1986, a lovely time in Majorca with the children. It’s been hard since, what with work and volunteering, and horses and dogs to take care of.

“So I’m going to try to be a better husband and we’ll spend more time together. Well, spend time together! And perhaps travel around a little bit and see some interesting places in this country.”

Andy Mason remembers well his first call-out as a volunteer critical care doctor. It was on the old A45, at the Woolpit crossroads.

“I arrived in a worse state than any of the casualties at the scene, who had minor injuries,” he chuckles. “I thought ‘What am I going to have to deal with?’ Mouth was dry, stomach was cramped, heart was like this.” He mimes a rapidly-beating ticker.

“When you’ve done 2,000 calls over 40 years, it’s not long before you stop being like that. One of the things you can do is arrive in a really calm manner. Everybody else is likely to be like a headless chicken. Just take charge and be calm and collected.”

When he gets one of those “persons reported” calls, is there a sense of dread? “Not any longer. I pray that nobody has been trapped and burnt to death. But the days of dreading things I think are over for me.

“If mentally you’re in that sort of state, when you get to the scene you may not be as clear-minded as you need to be. So I try to remain detached − not that I’m uncaring, but you’ve got to remain detached so you can give your best effort to try to help casualties.”

In the 1970s, he says, ambulance crews gave first aid and took the ill to hospital as quickly as they could, but the only people doing any form of advanced pre-hospital medicine were GPs living or working close to the scene of a drama. There were no defibrillators to treat the heart.

Today, the kind of work SARS does has become highly specialised. Many volunteer doctors are anaesthetists, and accident and emergency consultants. There are also paramedics trained in critical care.

While the East Anglian Air Ambulance this summer took delivery of its first aircraft that’s “fully night-capable”, SARS volunteers are generally the only people offering pre-hospital critical care in the wee small hours. “We’re the lifeboat service of the roads, if you like,” Andy smiles.

Volunteer specialists can open the chest in an emergency – a procedure called a clamshell thoracotomy, “whereby you literally open up the whole ribcage like a clamshell and can get directly to the heart and lungs.

“If someone’s been stabbed in the chest, through the heart, this is the only way you will save their life – by doing this at the scene. There’s not enough time to get them to hospital. You’ve got to get in and, like the little Dutch boy, put your finger in the hole.”

Authorised SARS doctors and paramedics can also administer very potent painkilling drugs not carried by regular ambulances. They have some advanced medical equipment at their disposal, too – all paid for thanks to the public’s generosity.

Andy says some of the people he’s helped save have become great friends, such as Brian Baker. He suffered critical head and facial injuries, and was trapped in his car for nearly an hour, when it was in collision with a lorry in fog on the A140.

Andy kept him alive by inserting a tube into his airway while he remained trapped − the first time, reports SARS, this technique had been used in pre-hospital care anywhere in the world.

Brian was then flown by the RAF to Addenbrooke’s for emergency brain surgery − Andy flying with him − and made a stunning recovery. He told the charity: “The odds were really stacked up against me. No-one expected me to make it to hospital alive, let alone survive.”

Brian last year celebrated his golden wedding, says Andy, and has welcomed his first great-granddaughter. He’s also been the doctor’s guest at Newmarket races several times!

Having seen the results of so many accidents, does Andy find it’s influenced the way he lives his life? Does he seek to reduce risk?

“Do you know, I ride a 1300cc V4 Honda Pan European motorbike. If the number of fatal motorbike accidents that I’ve been to affected me, I wouldn’t be riding it!

“I also have a heart condition called atrial fibrillation, which requires me to be on anti-coagulant. I’m on a new one, which is very good, but there’s no ‘antidote’ to it. If I came off my motorbike, that would probably be curtains for me. But I’ve reached the age of 66 and… well, life is risky, isn’t it? I’m going to carry on riding my motorbike; probably do it a bit more now I’ve retired.

“I’ve even threatened to learn to smoke a pipe.” Much to the disgust of one of his granddaughters. “Once you’ve got to 66, there’s probably not enough time for it to do you any harm!”

The SARS Facebook feed has dropped Andy in it somewhat − “outing” his penchant for Burger King. Explain, please!

“I have a slight weakness for a Whopper cheese meal. ‘Go large! And a Diet Coke, please.’ When we’re doing our team shifts we’ll have three people in the vehicle, and I usually insist, being the senior member, that we have to get fuelled up properly!

“It is my favourite. I get to choose where we refuel...

“Unfortunately, twice, I’ve just put in the order and through the call has come, and we’ve had to gather everything up in our arms and do the call. That’s the nature of emergency work; you just have to go.”

Suffolk Accident Rescue Service is a charity

It launched in 1972

It provides a team of trained volunteer doctors and paramedics to help the East of England Ambulance Service at serious incidents − accidents and medical cases

The extended training for its volunteers, and their equipment and drugs not found on frontline ambulances, allows rescuers to carry out advanced procedures at the scene that are normally only done in hospitals. This can result in ‘truly lifesaving interventions’

The charity relies on voluntary donations to pay for everything

Dr Andy Mason was chairman from 1997 to 2000 and has just stepped down as vice-chairman

www.sars999.org.uk

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