Monday, September 23, 2013

September 23rd, 2013

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

Flying combines so many different disciplines - engineering, physics, chemistry, biology, agriculture, land management and, to be honest, it requires lot of understanding of the human body - especially in relation to human limitations and how to handle health matters, including accidents.

Whether it is a heart attack, a baby being born, a tractor accident, a paper cut, swarf splinter, infected cut or an air accident, understanding how the human body works, first aid and trauma management are essential skills for those involved in the sort of work that I do.

I have been asked on many occasions 'how I learned about how to treat patients', and the answer is 'I lived through a lot of treatment and learned from it all!'

My first major training came when I was 11 years old. As a result of school bullying, and my head being treated as a football for a while, removing some of my teeth and leaving me unable to use my legs or left arm properly, I spent a long time in hospital.

A hospital can be a place of pain and suffering, or, if you take the right approach, a place of learning, discovery and people skills development. I chose the latter.

In the bed next to me there was a young man recently diagnosed with diabetes, and he was learning how to give himself injections. I did not want to be left out, and so we shared the opportunities! For him it was an encouragement and for me it was a new skill to learn. The practice 'patient' was a tangerine - and the injectable substance was simply water. We managed between us to perfect our bubble flicking, syringe plunging and ultimately 'inflate' the tangerine into an orange - a point of no return! I even got to practice on him when the nurses weren't looking! In those days, we learned by doing - and many skills were gained! 

Part of my rehabilitation involved a lot of physiotherapy. However, physiotherapists are not there all the time, and thus I needed to invent my own 'skills building'. In order to stimulate my left hand, I taught myself to write and draw with my left hand. I learned new ways to manage my geometry for moving about, and asked so many questions about the bones, nerves and muscles that my basic anatomy knowledge was quickly challenging that of the nurses!

Within eighteen months I was back to near full-mobility, and along the way had grasped the basis of 'body function' - bones, muscles and nerves. I had to understand them to understand my own recovery - and it came in useful a few years later.

At seventeen, I underwent my first major trauma incident. A simple accident resulted in a broken vertebrae and two slipped disc. Sadly, it was just before the completion of my A levels, but thankfully, being in a teaching hospital for five operations and many months of treatment was a fantastic educational opportunity - I believe it was better than going to university, which I had to forfeit through this opportunity in my life.

The orthopaedic ward was an 'early exposure' ward for the young nurses. They were there learning by doing, and studying whilst learning. I quickly learned that knowing something has nothing to do with being able to 'recite' it. You have to be able to 'apply it'.

My dressings were changed several times per week, over months, and I was the 'perfectly difficult' patient for nursing and medical students to practice on. Aseptic procedure is important in infection control, and the senior nurses knew that I would correct any student who 'skipped a step', and I did - with relish! Here I learned about the basics of dressings, wound preparation, bsi (body substance isolation) and making sure that infection was controlled. I also was the 'favourite' patient for 'teaching and learning' and, as a long-term ward member, would be used for endless visits by surgeons, nurses, physiotherapists, etc. The best part was that I got to listen to their lessons many times over - and soon knew - and understood - the answers to many questions!

Another duty that was bestowed upon me at that time, was that of 'unofficial-counsellor'. Patients who had challenges with their conditions would be put in my ward, placed near to my bed, to share my optimistic outlook on the challenges of health. Then, one day, a nurse asked me to take my wheelchair to the common room, as there was a twenty-something lady who had a car crash, and had lost her arm. She needed 'her vision of life adjusted'.

I wheeled my way to the common room to find a shaky, red-eyed and not very happy newly-wed, sitting, no, slumping, in a chair. All of her 'joie de vivre' appeared to have been amputated with her arm. I rolled alongside, sought eye contact, and started to chat. It was one-sided to start with, but quickly moved through staccato interaction towards a meaningful conversation. I told her how lucky she was - which did not go down too well... then, as we chatted, we considered what could have been worse. With a reality check in place, we started to talk about her future - a topic that had been ripped from her body with the trauma of her event. Her future would not involve her lost arm, but it would involve a lot of new opportunities. As we sought the positives, the smiles started to grow. Not everyday, but over the next few weeks her face became one of light, smiles and soon the only tears that were shed were tears of laughter. To be honest, it did me as much good as her! Her husband, who I believe had been driving at the time of her accident started to cheer up too, and the day of discharge from hospital was a new beginning for them, and the prosthetic arm that had joined their lives. It just needed a change of focus, and the picture that represented their future was recalibrated accordingly. In all honesty, I think that they were happier than before the accident, all things taken into consideration.

Learning how to take ones misfortune and turn it into a positive, and to learn from every situation we find ourselves in, is key to our success and our happiness. We cannot change the past, but we can shape the future - but only if we have taken the opportunity to learn from our situations, seeking out the positives, adding them up and putting them in the forefront of our field of view.

Today, I am prepared to handle most accidents and have passed First Aid/EMT courses, based on my experiences and having learned from the opportunities that have presented themselves. 

Today, through experience, coupled with an inquisitive nature and backed by further study, I am confident of handling accidents at the airfield - or anywhere else - and to train others in the same skills. Moreover, I have learned that it is essential to actively learn from all situations you find yourself in - taking the positives and adding them to the toolkit of life experiences that make us what we are.

Capt. Yaw is Chief Flying Instructor and Chief Engineer at WAASPS, and lead Pilot with Medicine on the Move, Humanitarian Aviation Logistics ( e-mail

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