Practising on a peak
Dr Stuart Allan describes the life of a GP and mountain rescue doctor in the Lake District
Profile: Dr Stuart Allan
Dr Stuart Allan
Role Mountain rescue doctor, Kendal Mountain Rescue team; faculty member for the Diploma of Mountain Medicine, UK; GP trainer and partner. Fell runner, ultra-runner and mountain unicyclist
Location The Lake District, UK
Hours worked per week 24/7 on call. Average 1-2 callouts per week. Each callout usually lasts 3-5 hours (much longer if it’s a search)
I had an early night but there’s a team callout at 11.30pm. The pager goes off. Usually this signals the start of a search for lost hikers who have not returned to their B&B at their stated time. Night navigation is an essential team skill. Fortunately, at least half our rescues take place during daylight hours. On this occasion, a report has come in that a young woman may have had an epileptic fit while on a Duke of Edinburgh award expedition trip miles from the road in Kentmere.
Half an hour later, I meet 10 other team members at Kendal base and we head off in Land Rovers. There are 35 hill-going team members, but work and family responsibilities mean that only a fraction can turn up to a callout. We carry all our equipment including medical kit, stretcher and hypothermia treatment bags into the mountains. Some 90 minutes later we arrive at the camp and I make my assessment. The woman is fine but I’m not going to leave her on the fellside with a history of what sounds like a prolonged seizure. There’s no head injury, blood sugar is fine and she has drunk a lot of water over the course of the day. Some salty soup and 60 minutes later she’s improved enough to walk out with minimal assistance. A three-mile casualty carry across rocky and boggy ground is the last option.
By 5am I’m on my way home after delivering our casualty to hospital in Kendal. I get 60 minutes’ sleep, then it’s another day at the office, in our practice on the edge of the national park.
Team mountain rescue training is on a Wednesday evening and one whole Sunday once a month. Tonight, we’re practising trauma and medical scenarios for the annual casualty care exam. This is advanced wilderness first aid. The first scenario involves a team member having an MI. The second is an anaphylactic episode following a meal with nuts while on an expedition. The team has a project manager, a park ranger, a fireman and an architect as well as the usual assortment of mountain instructors and climbers.
I also teach doctors on the National Diploma of Mountain Medicine in North Wales and the international diploma in Scandinavia (ScanDiMM).
This is my day off. I’ve dropped my daughter at primary school and head into the fells on my own. The Kentmere round is one my favourite circuits, 13 miles or so over eight mountains and 1,250 metres of ascent and descent. I love the peace and solitude and barely see another soul. I have lived and worked as a remote rural GP in the Canadian Rockies. I have had avalanche injuries, severe hypothermia and frostbite. This was an unforgettable experience but I always wanted to return to the Lakes. This endurance training was absolutely necessary before I took part in the BBC TV show Special Forces: Ultimate Hell Week, which puts civilians through training for special forces units around the world. There were 5,000 applicants and I was one of 22 selected to go to South Africa. They definitely put us through hell.
I’m at the practice at 7.30am to satisfy the extended hours DES until 8am. My mountain rescue work helps maintain my resilience in my GP work. It gives me an opportunity to work in a team which is not always possible in primary care.
I spend the morning with my kids and then my pager goes off. A shoulder injury on Gummer’s How, an area of frequent callouts. It’s a lovely place for a family walk but there are plenty of slippery rocks. I’m first on scene and the casualty is already getting cold. I get him wrapped up with spare clothes, immobilise his arm and give him analgesia. He is apologetic, as those we rescue always are. I radio my findings to the rest of my team. With the help of his family and a lot of personal determination on his side, I manage to walk him off the fell to meet my team armed with Entonox. Paramedics meet us at the roadside and transport him to hospital. I go home for the rest of the afternoon to my family.