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At the heart of general practice since 1960

Going through my paces as a racecourse medical officer

Serendipity brought me into it: the gods dropped the barrier in front of my car as

I tried to cross the Brighton Racecourse road. I was at the front of the queue as the horses flashed past in a rainbow of colour.

It was an elemental experience, to feel the pulsating ground and to smell the sweat and crushed grass. I was determined to attend the next race meeting.

This was long ago when I was young, keen and fresh out of the Pony Club and an A&E post at King's.

I'd done a trauma job in Cape Town and thought I could do anything; so when I saw most of the 'golden hour' taken up trying to get the racecourse doctor out of the bar and into the Land Rover to attend to a casualty, I vowed to do better.

I lambasted the Jockey Club chief medical officer at a public meeting and was given a good telling-off as he supported his staff's 'experience and longstanding service'.

Afterwards he offered me the job.

That was the beginning of the end for the old school of medical officers, retired dermatologists and the like, who enjoyed racing and who attended in an honorary capacity ­ hopeful rather than effective.

Fortunately all sports have become much more professionally staffed these days, with relevant courses and minimum postgraduate qualifications for attendant medics at racecourses. My advanced trauma life support qualification gave me confidence and experience to deal with most things that can go wrong when half a ton of fast-twitch fibres travelling at 40mph lands in Beecher's Brook on top of a nine-stone jockey.

The qualification was a useful passport to other interesting branches of medicine.

Working as a racecourse

medical officer (RMO) provides very different challenges from life

in general practice. I find the

fresh air and basically healthy population a perfect antidote

to morning surgery.

Being an RMO requires management and organisational skills, liaising with the emergency services and deploying a mixed team to best possible effect.

Sporting events necessarily attract large crowds (except Plumpton Racecourse on a wet Tuesday in January). Plans need to be made to deal with major incidents.

And then there's the unpredictable English weather. Racecourses are always exposed and often 10 degrees colder than ambient temperature, except in summer when they are 10 degrees hotter.

But you generally get a nice lunch, and the company is congenial.

I have found people who deal with livestock, whether farmers or jockeys, tend to be sensible, practical and have a degree of common-sense other patients sometimes lack. Dealing with them is easier, and because it's more straightforward with fewer angles, more gratifying. These people have dogs to walk, cattle to feed and horses to muck-out, they haven't got time to be ill.

There's more to being an RMO than saving lives. Going to the races is a real eye-opener, an education in economics, statistics, geography, biology, psychology, fashion and folklore. People-watching opportunities are endless. Correct clothing is important; the first thing I learned was never leave your raincoat in the car.

Medically speaking the workload varies from plasters for blisters through collarbone fractures to the odd major injury. There are a couple of equestrian deaths annually, though usually not on racecourses where there is immediate back-up from two fully equipped paramedic ambulances. Then of course there is the crowd with its drunks, allergics and arteriopaths.

Sort of like morning surgery, but more fun.

Drunks, allergics and arteriopaths. Like morning surgery, but more fun~

A new breed

of specially qualified medics are now staffing sporting events, says

Dr Lucy Free

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