MAGPAS is used to saving the lives of patients in Cambridgeshire but a telephone call to the team last month saved the life of a man thousands of miles away – in the frozen wilderness of the Arctic.
Dr Rod Mackenzie was on duty at the emergency charity’s Wyton headquarters when the call came through via a satellite phone from Greenland.
Explorer Justin Miles, from Sutton, was two days into an expedition that he had been planning for two years when he started to suffer excruciating abdominal pain after slipping on the ice.
Justin, 39, said: “It was nothing dramatic: it was like tripping up a kerb.
“I had a stitch-like pain that developed over a few days. It was only when I stopped that I realised how much pain I was in.”
Fortunately, months earlier, Justin chose to actively support Magpas in between his challenges. As a way of saying thank you, the charity agreed for their duty doctor to be available, should he need medical advice.
Justin said that he stripped to the waist, despite the sub-zero temperature, while his colleague Alex Hibbert spoke to Dr MacKenzie. After 20 minutes of using Alex as his “eyes and hands”, Dr MacKenzie diagnosed an epigastric hernia: a hole in the wall of the abdomen, which can become “strangulated” if left untreated – putting the patient at risk of developing blood poisoning.
Justin said: “Rod said I had a choice: go home or continue – and risk ending up dead. That was it.”
He continued: “I was in a lot of pain but I was desperate to carry on. We’d put everything into this trip, every penny we had, every waking hour for a year or more and because my body had broken we had to stop. I was devastated.”
The 900-mile mission was the first phase of a much longer trip to investigate a new route to the North Pole and one of just a handful to take place during Arctic winter. It would have been completed in total darkness with temperatures dropping to -50C.
Because they were just two days into the three-month journey, the walk to safety was relatively short. However, once they reached civilisation, they had to wait three days for a flight back to the UK.
By the time he was on home soil, Justin was no longer at risk and he is now on the waiting list for an operation to repair the hernia.
He is already planning his return to Greenland.
“The expedition will continue,” he said. “I’m a professional explorer and I will continue to do expeditions.
“This would have been the toughest. I’ve done jungles, deserts, mountains… It used to be all about the physical challenge but now I love motivating people. There’s nothing better than getting an email from someone who says ‘I saw what you did – now I’m going to do this!’”
Justin’s expedition is all the more remarkable because 13 years ago he had to relearn how to walk and talk after being involved in a road accident, in which he suffered a serious brain injury.
He met Dr MacKenzie for the first time at his home on Thursday (January 10).
“It’s nice to meet the guy who, in effect, saved my life. It was interesting to hear how he felt being on the other end of it.
“I want to say a big thank you to Magpas for all their help and support.”
Dr MacKenzie said: “I was a little surprised when I received the call. I obviously knew that we were going to support Justin and Alex but I wasn’t expecting the phone to ring so early on in the expedition.
“I just did my job, which is to sort out serious problems: that’s what we do at Magpas. Most importantly, it was great that we were able to intervene and we managed to stop Justin’s condition from deteriorating - especially when he was so remote from help.”