Dr John: His life and legacy

Published: 24 April 2016

Before his death in 2015 the pioneering trauma surgeon John Hinds was a mainstay of the Irish road race scene. But that wasn’t all he did with his short, brilliant life

e was famous throughout the Irish race scene as one of the two Flying Doctors who provided the fastest medical response in world motorsport. Mounted on sportsbikes, and carrying bright orange packs stuffed with equipment, John Hinds and his colleague Fred MacSorley saved countless lives.

 John was only 35 when he was routinely tracking a group of riders during a practice session at the Skerries 100 on July 4 last summer. Then he inexplicably crashed his BMW S1000RR and sustained fatal injuries. 

The death of the man who had watched over everyone else stunned the paddock and left his family and friends devastated.

“John always believed there was something that he could do to save lives,” says his partner Janet, who met John at medical school 15 years ago. A successful obstetrician and gynaecologist, she regularly shared an operating theatre with him during their day jobs, and knows better than anyone else what made him tick. 

“That was what John did medicine for, to save lives,” she says from her living room, surrounded by pictures of herself and John. “He realised that using the bike he could get to the scene of a crash much faster. Those first few seconds are vital not only in ensuring someone survives, but in making sure they survive intact.

“Of course he got to indulge his passion for riding bikes too. John adored being on the bike and he wouldn’t have been able to do the work he did if he hadn’t.”

Unusually in Ireland, no one in John’s family was interested in bikes. But living close to Kirkistown circuit, he became curious about what went on there. He saw his first track races at 14 – then the Ulster GP at Dundrod, where he was smitten by the spectacle of road racing. 

He bought his first road bike, a Suzuki RG125, when he was 17. But it was his third year of doctor training before he got the chance to dovetail his two loves professionally.

“It isn’t until your third year that you actually meet any patients, and it is usually in a clinic or GP’s surgery.” he explained in an interview he gave me shortly before his death. “My first patients were road racers.”

John had signed up as a member of the Motorcycle Union of Ireland Medical team – a squad of doctors and paramedics providing their services at races as unpaid volunteers. To start with, he was just an observer. “You have to familiarise yourself with how racing works, how the sport and its environment operates, or you are of no use to anyone,” he said. “You need to know things like the way a two-stroke goes silent when you shut the throttle, or you could be running out in front of bikes that are still racing. You learn those things, and how to fit into the team, during your two-year apprenticeship.” 

Part of that apprenticeship involved honing his riding skills. “Fred and John loved riding their bikes and they went to Jerez and Almeria in Spain during the winter with [NW200 winner] Woolsey Coulter for coaching sessions,” Janet recalls. 

“I even bought him track days at Mallory Park as a birthday present. I enjoyed the bike too. I rode pillion with him, getting my knee down a couple of times!”

The fun was also a crucial part of John’s race day job. Neither he nor Fred could risk getting caught by the likes of Michael Dunlop or Guy Martin as they followed on the opening lap. “He had to be sure he was fast enough,” says Janet. “His garage was like an operating theatre as he meticulously checked out his bike before every meeting. He saw all of that as part of his duty of care.”

John even tried racing himself, at Aberdare Park and with a GSX-R1000 on the Irish short circuits. “How can you give advice if you don’t know what you are talking about?” he said, by way of explanation. There was no doubt that it increased the respect and affection in which the racers held him.   

But it was working with fellow physicians in the MCUI Medical team that provided John with lifelong inspiration. 

“I was watching experts at work. I saw them descend on someone who had crashed and was in the active stages of the dying process, and they turned that around. That is a very seductive thing and I aspired to be like those people.”

John spent five years at medical school, a year as a pre-registrar and seven more years in combined training and practice. Eventually he gained a double consultancy as an anaesthetist and intensivist in a Co Armagh hospital.

“I’m a bit of a jack of all trades in the medical world,” was how he described his skill set. “It means that I can fix stuff as well as knock people out - and of course these skills are very transferable to dealing with crashes.”

Eventually he became the leading light in the MCUI medical team, but he never sought to lay claim to any of its numerous ‘saves’. Self-effacing and quietly spoken, he stressed the importance of the squad’s tightly co-ordinated approach. His description of one incident shows the sort of care it provided.

“The race was stopped and the rider had two travelling doctors with full resuscitation equipment on scene within 45 seconds. Four minutes after the incident started he was being attended to by six paramedics, three A&E physicians, an intensive care specialist, a surgeon and a consultant cardiologist with tens of thousands of pounds worth of equipment at their disposal.” 

Janet underlines the quality of that help. “They employed the same professional discipline and approach at the side of the road as they would in a hospital.”

John was highly respected by fellow professionals and the racing community, but he preferred to hang out with close friends and some of the paddock’s lesser known names. “John was a real race fan,” says Janet. “We booked our holidays around the racing calendar and he would record and watch every MotoGP and TT. He enjoyed meeting all of the top riders and chatting to them. Some, like Guy Martin, even stayed at our house.”

The loss of Myles Byrne, one of John’s closest friends, in a crash at Skerries in 2010, hit him very hard. “I rode back to the paddock and cried my eyes out,” he told me after his best efforts had failed to save his friend.

“John was very close to Myles and his death had a huge effect on him,” Janet recalls. “Typically though, he resolved to develop his resuscitation techniques. He was driven on to improve by his loss.” 

John’s work at the pointiest end of medical care exposed him to some of the toughest trauma challenges imaginable. Keen to share that experience, he began to deliver lectures all over the world, gaining international recognition for techniques that were developed by treating injured Irish road racers. 

“I’ve always been drawn to the high acuity stuff because dealing with the sickest patients pushes you to really think on your feet,” he told me last year. “That is what I got into medicine for, and provided me with the model of what a doctor should be.”

John’s mentor, Dr Fred Sorley, has vowed to continue the work that John was such a vital part of. “Nobody did it as well as he did,” Dr MacSorley says. “But I’ll have to find someone and train them up, and continue to do my best for patients at the side of the road.”

John’s work in areas such as the previously unrecognised Brain Apnoea Syndrome brought him praise from his medical peers- and new opportunities.

“John was speaking at a critical care medical conference in Sydney in 2014 when an official from the Dubai medical service told him there was a job waiting for him any time he felt like taking it,” Janet recalls. “He was also offered a job in a hospital in Sydney. And the British Army made determined efforts to recruit John to work with injured soldiers on the front line in Afghanistan. He was very tempted by that because the military had all the very latest technology. But in the end he decided to stay and work in Northern Ireland.”

Perhaps boosted by these approaches, John had begun to campaign for a helicopter air ambulance service for Northern Ireland. “John was very, very opposed to needless deaths, and statistics show that as many as 600 people since 2003 would still be alive today if we had this service,” Janet explains.

She and the others involved in the campaign are determined to see an air ambulance introduced as part of John’s legacy. As she says: “John wanted the very best for the place where he loved living.”

Words Stephen Davison