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At the heart of general practice since 1960

Men in black: St John Ambulance

Put your GP's working week into perspective with voluntary shifts for the St John Ambulance. It won't make you rich but it will broaden your horizons and raise your morale, says Dr Robert Jaggs-Fowler, who has risen to the top in the charity after 36 years' commitment

Put your GP's working week into perspective with voluntary shifts for the St John Ambulance. It won't make you rich but it will broaden your horizons and raise your morale, says Dr Robert Jaggs-Fowler, who has risen to the top in the charity after 36 years' commitment

Coincidence, fate, destiny; call it what you will. The fact is, the twin circumstances of my being 10 years old (and hence about to leave the Cubs) and my parents taking me to the 1970 summer carnival in Orpington, Kent, are what started it.

My father was keen for me to join the Scouts and had gone to considerable trouble to procure a place in the local troop. He was therefore quite perturbed when I made my announcement.

It was the elderly lady's fault. If she hadn't collapsed at the carnival, a Scout I would have been. As it was, I watched, spell-bound, as two men, wearing black uniforms with white crosses on the sleeves, attended to the stricken lady and carried her off on a stretcher.

'Dad, I don't want to be a Scout. I want to join the St John Ambulance.'

The scope of the work

Thus began my association with the organisation. It has lasted 36 years and has seen me rise from cadet to Assistant Chief Commander (essentially, the second-in-command of the entire organisation) for the Priory of England and the Islands (the governing body of the St John Ambulance).

St John Ambulance is the United Kingdom's premier first-aid charity. Its 43,000 volunteers supply first aid, care and transport services throughout England, providing support for most public events - a service that last year equated to 10,000 hours per day.

My pre-medical days in the St John Ambulance were spent as a first-aider at such splendid occasions as Trooping the Colour, Beating the Retreat, the Lord Mayor's Parade in the City of London, New Year's Eve in Trafalgar Square, motorbike racing at Brands Hatch and the Biggin Hill Air Shows. These were interspersed by duties at London theatres, local gymkhanas and stock-car races. I was also involved with a repatriation scheme for injured tourists, whereby we would crew ambulances to exotic places like Benidorm.

There was never a dull weekend! If such activities were not responsible for my becoming a doctor, my membership of the St John Ambulance was certainly of help when I applied for medical school.

After qualifying, I fitted my voluntary activities round busy hospital rotas, being appointed in 1986 as divisional surgeon to a cadet division in Lincoln and subsequently to an adult division in Hull in 1988, where I oversaw the first-aid training of the members. In 1993, I was offered the role of county surgeon for Humberside, with the responsibility for all matters medical, including the medical cover for major events such as Hull Fair and the Humber Half Marathon.

In 1996 I was promoted to county director, running first-aid and allied courses for businesses and industry, and in 1999 I was put in charge, as county commander, of all St John Ambulance activities in Humberside, a post I held for six and a half years.

Always on the move

Towards the end of 2005, I was appointed an assistant chief commander for the Priory of England, with special administrative responsibilities for the north east, eastern and east Midland regions.

An enjoyment of travelling is important, as each county needs to be visited regularly and there are meetings at the national headquarters in London once or twice per month.

The Priory of England is part of the international Order of St John. The Order is over 900 years old. As such, it is the oldest Order of Chivalry. It also runs the St John Eye Hospital in Jerusalem, where the care is free to all, regardless of race or creed.

A visit there is a most humbling experience. In 2004, I had the privilege of being invested as a Commander of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem, an honour bestowed by the Queen. I put in one to two days per week, fitted around my work as a GP partner in Lincolnshire. But some volunteers commit as little as one evening per week.

Oh, yes - money. How much am I paid? Well, nothing, actually. It's all voluntary. All that for no remuneration, I hear you say. Nevertheless, there are rewards. Being a leading part of such a venerable organisation is reward enough. I call it putting something back into the community - a kind of thank-you for the privileges I have been offered in life as a doctor. You should try it. Once you're hooked, it is difficult to escape, so great is the satisfaction of belonging.

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