Ypres

Last Thursday, I drove the 270 km to Ypres. I’d obviously been reading ongoing coverage of the 14-18 War, and the time had come to walk that land.

It was a terribly moving, disturbing, take-you-by-the-shoulders-and-shake-you visit. I didn’t know what to expect. And I certainly didn’t expect to be affected like this.

It’s a lovely area. Very gently rolling farmland, very typical tiny Belgian villages occupying the intersections of the roads crisscrossing the area. It was a largely sunny end-of-summer day. But then you look at the pictures OF THIS PLACE, from right where you’re standing, taken 100 years ago. Nothing alive except relics of men either trying to survive or to kill each other. Sinking into the mud waist high in the same places I walked so easily. How did the sun know not to shine then? Did it ever come out? Knowing what happened there, knowing what was underfoot made me feel like screaming, all day, everywhere.

Look at this picture:

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That wooden structure about 75 metres distant, is a water slide, and that’s a theme park. 75 metres. Over three weeks, 5000 men, Brits and Germans, died between that water slide and where I stood to take that picture.

I thought I “understood” what it meant to “fight for one’s country”. I still might. But what I still cannot fathom is the courage of those men. They were there because they had to be there. Doing the right thing seems so . . . easy. Being here brings home that it ISN’T always easy to do the right thing. The weight of their sacrifice, those who went home and those who didn’t, still feels physically crushing to me.

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Somewhere on one of his albums, Bruce Springsteen says something that I’ll never forget, and that I said over and over to myself Thursday:

Blind faith in your leaders will get you killed

Randomness kept jumping at me all day. The randomness of a shrapnel fragment killing the guy next to you, but not you. The randomness of the generals’ objectives, and of deciding that it was worth 5000 of your neighbours’ kids for 75 meters of mud.

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Later, at the end of the day, the randomness of whose grave my eyes set upon, whose name, what age, assaulted me. Two thirds of the men buried here are unidentified. Row after row of blindingly white gravestones, and no names. One of their great grand-kids could come here, and stand in front of any grave, chosen . . . randomly . . . and pay his respects to great grand-dad.

I’m glad I went. I have no idea how people can live there. It’s testimony to human resilience, I know. But I’ll never go near that place ever again.

What an accumulation of horrors. And it’s so hard, amidst this bucolic scene, to take away the sun, to make the mind’s eye swap the rich farmer’s fields for no man’s land, the grass under foot for a mud made of equal parts of dirt, bone, blood, and metal. We can IMAGINE it, but can’t FEEL it. That enraged me.

We better think damned long and hard before we go asking our kids to die for something.

It better be worth it.

What about grassroots motorsport?

Mark has written to ask:

Very insightful on how things were not that long ago and now today. I race at club level in UK Motorsport. What’s your view on the level of medical given at the bottom of the Motorsport ladder?

If we’re talking about the UK, you can sleep easy – one of the strong points of “lower level” racing over in your neck of the woods is the quality of circuit coverage. There are a lot of reasons for this.

Obviously the most important is how much you guys love your racing. Circuits everywhere, constant track days – people love racing a lot, and that means that there are people who love helping make racing happen. It takes a small army of people to set up and run even the smallest race weekend, and by and large, they all do it because they love it.

That love for the sport isn’t enough though. Nope, on top of that you need to be committed to excellence. And that’s what makes you guys so strong . . . even at the grassroots level. The standards, guidelines, training and certification of almost everyone with “critical” roles to play is typically British. And leads to typically British excellence.

Go ahead and ask trackside personnel the same question you asked me. You’ll be surprised to hear them tell you how bad things are. And you know what? That’s a GOOD sign. Because objectively you guys do a fantastic job at the grassroots. There’s no money, no glory, and it sure ain’t sexy. But still, EVERYBODY wants to do it better. No one is complacent.

The UK’s love of motorsport and organisational qualities made your rescue services great. That constant desire to do it better is what KEEPS them great.

Silverstone was a blast (2)

What about the folks in the front seat, the folks doing what I did?

The first thing to say is that there is a fundamental difference in how the medical service is organised in MotoGP, as compared to F1. With F1, the governing body, the guys who write the rules, also supply the people to liaise, coordinate and if need be work with the local team providing medical cover. The COMMERCIAL rights holder, has NOTHING to do with things.

In MotoGP, the FIM writes the regulations, and presumably has mechanisms to verify compliance. But the people at the circuit, sitting in the medical cars, work for Dorna, the commercial rights holder.  Now I’ve not thought through the implications and complications of this (not sure it’s better or worse than the set-up in F1, just different), so I’ll simply point out the difference.

In the “old days”, that is up until shockingly recently, medical care for this championship was supervised by “Dr. Costa” and his Clinica Mobile. Usually described as a legend and a demi-god by non-medical people, he was certainly his own greatest admirer. If I had lawyers, and I don’t, they’d be waving their arms madly to prevent me from writing exactly what I think of the Clinica Mobile. So I won’t. Not even to say that – what’s that? – I can’t even say THAT? Ok forget it. You all get the message, right. Wink wink? Wink wink!

The death of Simoncelli was the catalyst for Dorna to bring in a group of people who were tasked with bringing medical cover and response from the Renaissance to the 21st century.

The team is 100% Spanish, which is normal given that Dorna is too. They’re a small, friendly and highly motivated group of doctors and paramedics. They’re on a very steep learning curve, given what would appear to be total neglect over years (either that or total, severely misplaced, faith in many of the local teams!) of medical and rescue training and standards at many of the circuits visited top-flight motorcycle racing.

Interestingly, from what I can see, they’ve been “parachuted” into this environment without having followed the “usual” path we all follow. That is, junior doc/nurse/paramedic paired with an experienced person for a season or so, then years of accumulating experience and knowledge about race procedures, the clinical epidemiology of the injuries seen, etc. Then being the senior person mentoring the junior. Then deputy chief, etc etc.

This is important.

Not having that shared background “in the trenches” has a number of consequences that will make their jobs a bit harder.

Credibility: it’s hard to realise just how important this is. The shared database of shivers and full bladders, snoozes and cold sweats, of radio failures and aborted starts is almost REQUIRED before most motorsport rescue people will take your comments on board.

Real-world experience: what’s an Incident Officer? What’s the blue flag mean? Knowing that leaning on or over the Armco is dangerous. At an accident scene, knowing (and loving) that edge of chaos and the need to improvise every time.

And most important? Passion. If these folks are passionate about the sport, and about doing everything they can to make the care offered to the riders as good as it can possibly be, they’ll succeed. If they approach this as a job, they’re going to struggle. That’s because for US, the one word on all our lists of why we do this is passion.

If they’ll have me again, I’d love to work at another MotoGP race. I just won’t make it a habit!

Silverstone was a blast! (1)

Being at Silverstone this weekend, after 21 months O.O.O. (out-of-overalls), brought home to me just how true it is that I came forthe racing, but I stayed for the people. I had a blast. Here, again in a totally random fashion, my thoughts and feelings about working at my first MotoGP race.

I rediscovered that draw-dropping wonder at watching these lunatics riders on those stunning little jewels of machines. Yes, F1 holds me in thrall, but over the years I’d lost much of that very young boyish feeling of . . . Almost not believing I’m seeing what I’m seeing. In fact, I spent the weekend saying “awesome” constantly. Our standby position allowed us to watch them apexing and accelerating out of Copse. It is a seriously thrilling sight.

The open-face helmet. When I worked with Sid, we donned helmets for race laps only. After Sid retired, all the car-borne personnel agreed that we should always be lidded.

First of all, I assume that any of you who know anything about me realise that I’m pretty serious about head injury and its prevention/mitigation. Our requirements were relatively simple, and after due consideration we opted for high quality open faced helmets. In the case of the medical car crew, we felt that the most likely mechanisms of head injury ON SCENE would be falls and flying debris. (That’s why in most pictures of me ready for work I’m wearing ballistic eyewear also). It was clear that both to maintain protection as well as to foster the most professional image possible, we would not remove our lids while working. This essentially eliminated full face helmets from consideration.

Remember, we’re in a huge road-ready Merc that’s been reinforced just where you’d want it to be. We’ve got 6-point harnesses in front and we’re on a circuit that is purpose built to make sure that decelerations are as gentle as possible. Yes, of COURSE we’re travelling a bit . . . swiftly . . . but Alan and I felt utterly protected with our helmets on.

The local team providing medical cover for the Silverstone leg of the MotoGP championship is the team that covers the British Superbike championship. These guys are spectacularly devoted, utterly professional, and really are a model of efficiency, good humor and passion. They take their JOBS, not themselves, seriously.

They didn’t assume I knew nothing about doctoring for bikes, but nor did they assume I knew everything. So I learned TONS. How can that not be fun?

Interestingly, and this came as a huge surprise, there’s almost no intersection between the medical/rescue people doing cars and those doing bikes. My non-random sampling indicates that a large proportion of them are actualy bikers. But the passion, the commitment, and the willingness to tolerate hours of boredom/discomfort/heat/cold/wet/mosquitos etc, is the same as everybody out on a corner or in an intervention car, whether it’s bikes, cars, boats, airplanes or trucks out there.

Hey this is getting long. I’ll finish up tomorrow, and talk a bit about the people sitting in the front seats of the medical cars.

 

Back at Silverstone

For the past longer-than-I-can-remember, I’ve been coming to Silverstone every February to join the faculty of a three day trauma course we teach at the Medical Center. The instructors are a fabulous group, with massive cumulative motorsport medicine experience. Ian Roberts, the current F1 Rescue Coordinator is there every year, as is the Chief Medical Officer of the British Superbike series.

This past February, perhaps more as a dare, Heike (the Superbike CMO) asked if I’d come up for MotoGP at the end of August.

So here I am.

My thoughts so far?

In no certain order, and with scant attention to the importance or lack thereof of any of this drivel, here goes:

  • I’m sure it’s a total coincidence but I’m riding in Chase 1. The previously mentioned (Twitter) M550d. The power comes on so linearly that one can be fooled. It’s very quiet and quite comfortable. Not as agile as the Merc, but BMW has not yet tried. It needs to shed a hundred or so kg. Or better, 200.  A no drama mama.
  • The medical folks are a totally charming group. They really seem to be committed to getting it right, and have not been there long. Closer relations between these guys and some of the FIA medical people would benefit everyone, and help these guys move up their learning curve even faster.
  • I am staggered by the amount of time I have spend getting to, shitting around at, and queueing to leave, circuits all over the world for the past 17 years.
  • I am staggered by the amount of time I have spent sitting in medical cars over the past 24 years. I am actively avoiding thinking about the opportunity costs of this passion.
  • I had a fantastic day, learning about bikes, talking to the team in the car, and soaking up being at a circuit again.

For info, I did NOT go to the race at Spa. It’s massively nice of Mr. E. to have approved a pass for me, but stuff kept coming up that totally prevented me from actually  getting there.  Interestingly (for me at least), this was accompanied by none of the angst, drama, or panic that one would think normal under these conditions (my home GP, first race in a year, first Belgian GP not attended in 24 years, etc).

I think this means nothing more and nothing less than that “it” is officially out of my system. Yes, here I am at Silverstone, but besides this being a 6 month old commitment, it’s FUN, and it’s my choice.

I love this racing thing. I’ll certainly work at events in the future. But right now I’m working on some super exciting possibilities for the near future, and besides keeping me busy, it feels like starting to prepare for a journey, and I’ve always loved that feeling…

I just wanted you all to know . . .

I’ve surprised myself with how affected I’ve been by Robin Williams’ death. After thinking about it since yesterday, I’ve finally realised why.

I cannot bear the thought that people can be so sad, and see the world coloured so darkly, that they feel there is no one who can help. Or that their sadness and darkness is too much of a burden for others, and needs to be ended. That others would be better if they weren’t around any more. 

I cannot bear the thought that someone reading my blog might feel this way. 

So I want you to know – no matter how alone you think you are, no matter how much of a burden you think you are, and no matter how incontrovertibly correct you think you are, it’s not that way.

If you feel alone, or if you can’t lean on people around you, for whatever reason, please let me know. Send a comment – I won’t publish it, but I’ll get in touch. Please.

I’m no shrink, and I’m not even particularly good at running my own life. But I’m (allegedly) a fellow human being, and this is what we humans do. We help each other. We’ve been doing it since the savannah thousands of years ago, and it’s what makes us what we are. Send me one word – just one – or type me half a novel, it’s fine with me – and you won’t be alone. Just one other person who actually cares. And for whom it’s NOT a burden. Please.

Nobody should die thinking there’s no way out.