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After Hurtwood: the anaesthetist and air-ambulance operative, Lauren Weekes (neé Brash)

With an efficiency that was immediately apparent, it did not take long for me to set up an interview with an ex-Hurtwood student who has worked her way up to one of the most challenging roles in the medical profession. Having known Lauren as a very small girl, long before she took her A levels at Hurtwood, and already a single-minded character, I wondered what changes I would find.

What greets me is a really engaged, acutely sharp and delightfully enthusiastic young professional, proud to be at the heart of medicine and thoroughly enjoying a spell on the literal frontline of emergency care. We meet via Facetime shortly after my first email, on a sunny Sunday morning, Lauren sharing her post-Hurtwood journey with me during a break on her long shift with the Warwickshire and Northamptonshire Air Ambulance Service. She left her bed at 5.30 this morning and will not finish until 7 tonight. Dressed in her impressive orange Air Ambulance kit, she shows me the helicopter that will take her and the team to the next emergency.

She exudes the kind of calm assurance and commitment that one would wish for if any part of that emergency involved you or yours. There is a complete lack of fuss or arrogance, and it is fascinating to hear the career stages which have taken her, over the last twenty years, from the class of 1999, to this extraordinarily key role in accident and emergency care.

What does she remember of Hurtwood? Plenty, clearly, and she particularly identified the pleasure she found in the multiculturalism of the place, meeting kids from all over the world, with different faiths and backgrounds. It was an ‘eye-opener’ that began to extend her horizons in positive ways, and one that she has always relished. What did the school contribute to her journey, I ask. Her reply is immediate: ‘World-class teaching.’ Good to hear, I think, and she goes on specifically to identify Chemistry and Biology as her favourites. She admits to struggling somewhat with Maths, and wishes that she had been able to take French. But, cajoled and supported, she secured her place to read Medicine at Southampton. Over the next five years she had a great time, acquired a fantastic group of friends, many of them non-medicos (clearly a bonus), and got a great grounding education, and a husband. House jobs followed in Bournemouth and Frimley Park hospitals, covering many different fields, including General Practice. She learned ‘loads… including the sheer panic of what I had to do,’ and gained that breadth of experience which is the foundation of the good practitioner.

It was then back to Southampton, working in Accident and Emergency, which seemed the most likely route that she would settle on. What followed, however, was invaluable, she tells me. After six months working in anesthesia at Chichester Hospital, she happened upon an advert for a post in New Zealand, and with her partner moved out to the antipodes for a year. She identifies this decision as one of the most important of her unfolding career: ‘It got me off the treadmill,’ she tells me, ‘It allowed me to see the whole experience of medicine in a new light, without all the pressure of what comes next.’ It gave her time to think about her options and what she really wanted from her career. She worked in Whangarei on North Island, with a large populace, including many Maori, and thoroughly enjoyed the sense of doing the job itself, rather than always cramming for the next learning curve. It was, she recalls a ‘pretty ideal lifestyle’. Why then did she return to Britain? Clearly, she now understood, refreshed and refocused, she had much more to achieve. She was soon back in the UK, in Torbay working for the next two years on the specialism of anaesthesia, and from the first she tells me, realized that she had found her field.

Why, I ask, particularly given all of the different medical areas on offer, does this one carry such a long commitment to training? ‘Because professionally it is really satisfying,’ she replies without hesitation. This is clearly something she has thought about a great deal. ‘So much of my previous work has proved a kind of fire-fighting. Here I can focus totally on one patient. Give my very best.’ She also really values the logic of her work. ‘Here you can literally see way that science works before your eyes. I can see it and I can manipulate it.’ She speaks of the power that is in her hands, the intricacies of monitoring the functions of the human body, interestingly without bemoaning the consequent responsibility that she is quite literally in control of life and death on a minute by minute basis. I find myself thinking once again that she is precisely the person I would like in control were I to be the patient in question. Although much of the work is routine and relatively relaxed there is that sense that a major and potentially mortal complication is possible at any time. She clearly relishes this challenge, and has developed her own techniques to maximize outcome, showing the calm professionalism that has brought her thus far.

Her next move? Well, ‘plenty of choice,’ she tells me, although given that she has already settled down with her family in the West Country, she is at present waiting for the ideal post as consultant anaesthetist to present itself nearer to home. She is optimistic that this wait will not be too long and, meanwhile, it is clear she is thoroughly enjoying the challenges of Pre-hospital Emergency Medicine, in the form of the Air Ambulance Service, serving five counties, based in Coventry, broadening her experience and practice, and challenging her on a daily basis.

She speaks of her role, one that often involves the sedation of profoundly injured patients at the scene of an accident, how pre-hospital anaesthesia can increasingly save lives. She works as part of the rapid response team that regularly deal with over four major incidents in one shift. Is it stressful? Silly question: of course it is. With a 25% mortality rate, this really is frontline stuff, where all her skills and practice coordinate within the team to save lives and preserve quality of life, that sense of urgency which is the stuff of her daily job, gives them all ‘that familiarity with, and knowledge of, life and death on the edge.’ She wears this incredible expertise lightly. I am more impressed than I can say, particularly when she introduces me to the rest of her team as they relax between shifts. These are the people who can change lives, and they are deceptively modest I think, but clearly Lauren is rightly proud that she is using her skills so fully and effectively. Which reminds me…

Time to let Lauren get back to her job. What wider advice does she have to offer anyone contemplating a medical career? First and foremost, she says, ‘Don’t panic if you don’t get onto a medical degree from the start.’ There are many ways in, and interestingly the later post-graduate approach may work better for many. She stresses – and this echoes so much of the advice from other ex-students – ‘breadth of experience’ is invaluable in so many ways. ‘Once you’re in,’ she tells me, the route is often circuitous, especially as you hone in on your specialism’. So, once again, just keep following the opportunities.

Lauren has come a long way from her time with us on the Surrey hills, and it is a real pleasure to leave her to her shift, her work on the barricades. It is brilliant, I think, that Hurtwood has played its role in producing so competent, confident and efficient a player in this front-line post.

Her goals, I ask? Well she positively bubbles with an enthusiasm to extend the wider potential in the development of anaesthesia, through education, research and management skills. She is also really excited by the prospect of drawing on her wider experience of pre-hospital emergency medicine and the possibilities of anaesthesia, with a view to saving more lives. I leave her to her day and wonder whose lives will be altered by this amazing team today, and indeed in the future. Are we at Hurtwood proud of Lauren? You bet we are!


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