It is with mixed emotions that we announce that the founder of UK-Med, Professor Tony Redmond OBE, will be stepping down from his position as Chair at the end of December 2022.
From this date he will continue to represent the organisation as Ambassador, promoting our work alongside creating a broader understanding of disaster emergency work and highlighting those who are most vulnerable.
UK-Med was founded by Tony in 1994, evolving out of SMART (the South Manchester Action and Rescue Team). This was created to provide the same level of emergency care at the scene of an emergency as patients would experience in hospital, thereby increasing their chances of survival. Initially the team included colleagues whose specialisms ranged from plastic surgery and emergency medicine to anaesthetics and burns.
One of the first big emergencies they dealt with was the Armenian earthquake of 1988, soon after which the team was deployed to the Lockerbie air disaster. Working in Sarajevo during the Balkans civil war showed Tony that work on an international scale required a larger pool of volunteers, drawn from across the UK, hence UK-Med was born.
Later, the experience of responding to the earthquake in Haiti demonstrated how, ‘There was a feeling that when operating in extreme circumstances, any help is better than no help,’ he recalls, ‘but this shouldn’t be the case. The standard of medicine should always be the same.’ So, working with the World Health Organisation he helped establish and promote internationally agreed standards for medical teams responding to humanitarian emergencies.
Originally UK-Med had a register of around 100 clinicians who they could call on to volunteer. Today the register holds more than 1000 names and includes clinicians and allied health professionals, aided by a central team of forty. ‘What is remarkable is the amount of people who’d originally volunteered for the UK who were willing to do the same abroad,’ Tony says. ‘Even in Sarajevo, going into very dangerous circumstances. Ebola, the same. And now, in Ukraine. We’ve always had the people we need.’
UK-Med began without a grand vision, and Tony is pleased how the organisation has evolved according to need and expertise. ‘It’s become much bigger than I imagined. We started as a niche specialist surgical team. Today we provide experts in outbreak response work – including measles, Diphtheria, Ebola; training in managing contaminated casualties – whether from chemical weapons or a dirty bomb; and, alongside local clinicians, we also run in-country health care programmes, as we’re currently doing in Ukraine’.
Asked for his highlights, he talks about all the people he’s been able to help. ‘For instance, two babies with meningitis, brought into the field hospital we created on the Iran/Iraq border. They were moribund and I thought they’d die, but with intravenous antibiotics they lived. I have never forgotten those children. How far a drop of medicine can spread in a pool of need.’ He also talks about the relationships he’s formed. ‘I’m still in touch with people I’ve worked with in Bosnia, Kosovo. That sort of hand of medical friendship is really important, helping to prevent what can be an intense feeling of isolation.’
The hardest part of the job has been seeing suffering that’s been caused deliberately. ‘I find my tolerance for it – if you can even have any – is getting worse. I was angry in Ukraine when I visited recently. Seeing mutilated children. Why? I kept asking. That’s hard.’
Tony will be handing over the role of Chair to Sir John Oldham, who takes up the position in January. ‘I feel like I couldn’t be leaving it in better hands. He’s very distinguished, and recently retired as a GP. We were founded as an organisation set up and run by practicing clinicians, so this keeps to our core ethos. Of course within the medical world he’s also famous for his passion for quality and standards, which again makes him perfect for us. He’s known as a great organiser, and has a very good network within the NHS and Government departments. Again, this is important as we’ve always recruited from the NHS and we want to keep and strengthen those relationships. And he’s a nice chap.’
Tony himself has no plans of retiring (his ‘no’ is most emphatic), but he does plan to take life a little more slowly, including long walks with his wife, Caroline, and playing his guitar; on which he’s just recorded an LP. Alongside his ambassadorial role he’ll still do work for the WHO, with whom he helped set up the Emergency Medical Teams Initiative, setting standards within the field. He’s also helping set up the Faculty of Remote Rural and Humanitarian Healthcare, based at the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh. ‘To me it’s like the final piece in the jigsaw of making this work like any other branch of medicine. It will give you a professional home, with set standards, where there’ll eventually be examinations so you can show people you’ve trained in this work specifically.’
Nearly thirty years on, what does he feel about the state of international emergency medicine today? ‘It’s in a good state. After the Haitian earthquake in 2010 there was huge concern expressed about poor and inappropriate medical care and surgery, but I’ve not heard about anything like that since. The standards we’ve set with the EMT initiative have had a big effect internationally.’
And his hopes for UK-Med? ‘That our reach and impact continue to grow, providing an opportunity for people to do high quality humanitarian work. Because there is an enormous amount of work needed. I believe strongly there are no natural disasters; only natural phenomena. Disasters are man-made, always, to a greater or lesser extent, and sadly humanitarian needs continue to increase. Meaning our work (and the high standards we promote) are ever more important.’