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Bristow’s Simon Murray: Saving Lives During His Off Time

January 28, 2020

When Senior First Officer Simon Murray isn't flying Bristow Sikorsky S-92s to support offshore operations in Norway, he's volunteering as the medical subgroup leader for the Braemar Mountain Rescue Team operating in the Cairngorm mountains in the Scottish Highlands. At 4,000 feet, the Cairngorms experience severe Arctic conditions, with hundreds of avalanches and multiple fatalities each year.

Simon's rescue team is the only individual rescue team in Scotland to be an accredited team within the global alpine rescue organization The International Commission for Alpine Rescue (ICAR), the governing body that creates policy and protocols for rescue in the mountains.

Simon supports approximately 20 rescues each year, but the thrill of the rescue never gets old. Below, Simon recounts a recent rescue that made its mark on his memory:

It's always the same, just when you get out of the shower and finally sit down after a long day walking or climbing or skiing in the mountains. Nice and warm, feeling relaxed and satisfied, having covered many miles that day and looking forward to a nice dinner with your family. Bang! Reality hits as you hear the sound of the mountain rescue emergency callout tone alarming on your phone.

"Oh no," you think. "What could this be now? Do I have the energy for this after the day I've had? I haven't even eaten yet. This could be an all-nighter." As quick as a flash, you realise that all those worries in your head matter not, because high on some mountain, someone needs your help, and you are their last hope. Within minutes, you are running out the door with your 60-pound rucksack and off to the rescue base or the helicopter landing site, radio now turned on, awaiting the initial update as to the nature of the rescue. This is a regular scene for those of us who work as volunteer mountain rescue mountaineers in Scottish Mountain Rescue.

This particular rescue happened on a typical day off for me. I had spent a lovely day on the mountains, covering around 12 miles and had just got home and enjoyed a shower.

Something smelled great in the kitchen where my wife and two girls were busy cooking. I was really hungry after a good day of exercise but, as usual, when you least expect it, before I could eat anything, the rescue callout came through on my phone. No time to eat, I just had to grab my rucksack and run.

En-route in my car, the police incident controller told me there a woman who had fallen on rocks near the top of a local hill and was screaming with pain, unable to help herself. She was alone and in a very bad way in this cold and icy January weather. As the medic, I now had to mentally prepare for what I was going to need with me.

Within 12 minutes, I was at our rescue base and meeting other rescuers who, like me, had dropped everything and rushed to the rescue. I received a further update about the location and numbers of rescuers who were responding to the mission. The good news was that it was a close and easily reached hill.

I took one other experienced medic and began running towards the local hill where she was. We knew it would take us 20 minutes or so to run there, carrying our rescue rucksacks by torchlight. We also knew that others from my team would be getting tasked to begin carrying other equipment that would soon be essential at the top of the hill. We had ensured that they would bring our rescue stretcher, the medical gases, casualty bags and other medical equipment we would need.

Radios crackling, mind racing, we prepared ourselves for meeting the casualty who would be having one of the worst days of her life. We attend trauma events regularly and have gained extensive experience over the years in treating – physically and psychologically – casualties who are in need. We know that although they are having a nightmare, we must be steady and calm – business-like yet compassionate, firm yet empathetic. It's a balance, but our primary task is to stabilise a very sick person, then evacuate them from the hostile, remote environment, delivering them to definitive medical care. At times, that can mean spending hours with the casualty, other times the Bristow search and rescue helicopter will be there soon and uplift our casualty.

As we approached the casualty, we heard her cries and moans before we saw her. We quickly sprang into action as only a well-trained team can, working efficiently and methodically, following remembered drills and checklists, very similar to my flying role as a pilot. All the details were recorded and soon it was clear that she was very unwell and uncomfortable. She had been laying on the cold ground for an hour and a half, the earth itself sucking her life away, draining her of her own body heat and energy. She had most likely broken her right arm and shoulder and perhaps even dislocated it in the fall onto hard granite. Her vital signs were none too encouraging, and her screams of agony were distracting and concerning. She told me she was in the worst pain she ever had. After running through all the indications, contraindications, her medical history and any possible allergies, we determined the type of pain relief required and quickly administered it, then gave her additional medication, as well as oxygen, through a mask. Our next task was to set the injured arm for the packaging up into the casualty bag and then onto our stretcher.

The others from my team arrived in the meantime with all the gear and were busy getting everything ready for the transfer onto the stretcher. Everyone just knows what to do, thanks to our extensive training. Soon enough, the medications began to take effect, and what was initially a pain score of 10 out of 10 was soon down at 6, she was ready to be lifted onto the stretcher.

"This is gonna hurt," I told her. Sometimes you can't avoid causing the casualty more pain, but these things are sometimes necessary to get them off the mountain for more stable medical care. She was screaming, and whimpering, crying out in agony with every movement. I felt for her so much but I knew I must get her off the hills. After lots of gentle reassurance and talk to take her mind off her ordeal, she was eventually securely strapped onto the stretcher.

We heard from the incident controller that the helicopter would not be coming to this rescue job tonight. Unfortunately, this meant a full stretcher carry off the hilltop, through the forest and heather, down steep rocks, all the way to the foot of the hill where the village lies below. Twelve rescuers needed to carry the stretcher through the rough terrain, in pitch dark on a one-foot-wide path with trees and boulders on either side all the way. It was icy and nobody could see his footing because of the guy in front and his 60-pound rucksack. We knew it would take a huge effort on everyone's part to get her off the hill, but we were up for the challenge!

Time was racing on, and we had to get moving while the medications were taking full effect. The stretcher party moved off with one rescuer in charge of the move, while I stayed in control of the casualty, carrying the stretcher just by her head so she could hear and see me.

There is a strong bond that forms between a casualty and a rescuer over time. When someone is badly injured, they must keep up the fight to survive. That determination must be there to win the fight. Often, when someone comes to rescue the casualty, part of them says, "Oh – thank God! I can relax now. This guy has got me." This can sometimes be dangerous for them because their body starts to relax a little and they let their guard down when they should keep fighting. Nonetheless, a bond is created where the casualty is overwhelmed with emotion that this stranger has come out on a wild night to help them and is now comforting them and taking away their pain – he is literally saving their life.

As we stumbled down the hill through the icy rocks, the deep heather and undergrowth, through tight trees and bushes scratching and clawing at us, she moaned and gritted her teeth. The stretcher bearers were sweating and aching. Our brows were dripping and every muscle was screaming out for it all to end, but there was another 30 minutes still to go. We took a short rest to catch our breath back and loosen off sore muscles.

I had to take another set of vital signs reading from the casualty anyway. She was still stable and doing ok, and I assured her that the end to her ordeal was in sight.

Soon we were nearing the bottom of the hill; at last we could see lights from the village. The casualty was bravely gritting her teeth to the pain – and we were, too, by that stage.

The ambulance crew awaited us, and we gave them the standard casualty handover. As our goodbyes were exchanged and well wishes said, we bid her goodbye. The other team members were busy collecting up all the remaining gear and busily getting prepared for the homeward move. That left me standing by the ambulance watching my brave casualty being lifted up into the ambulance. She looked over at me, crying uncontrolledly and waving sadly at me. I could sense that she found it difficult to break that bond we had formed in those critical hours of her rescue. Even though she knew she was safe and would now be cared for better than we could have done on that cold hill top, it hurt somehow to be giving up that initial helping hand, the hand of a stranger who rushed to her rescue on that lonely, cold, dark night.

It was also a bittersweet parting for me, but it comes with the territory, and I was thankful for a happy ending to what could have been a tragic night.