Advanced Retrieval Practitioner and Expedition Medic, Wayne Auton MCPara, talks to Carly Dutton from the College of Paramedics about his paramedic journey and his most recent expedition with the Endurance22 team, who recently located Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship, Endurance, nearly 107 years after she sank.
On 5th February, a team of explorers departed Cape Town on the S.A. Agulhas II
in search of the wreck of Endurance
, Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship used for the voyage to Antarctica where an attempt to make the first land crossing of Antarctica was planned.
never made it to Antarctica, getting stuck in pack ice in the Weddell Sea in January 1915, with the crew living onboard for several months until 27th October 1915 when Shackleton took the decision to abandon ship. She sank on 21st November 1915 and was lost undersea for nearly 107 years.
The crew set off on a remarkable journey consisting of trekking on sea ice, where they camped for several months until the ice broke, then sailing to Elephant Island on 9th April 1916 in lifeboats that were salvaged from the ship before it sank. They remained here, surviving on seals and penguins until 30th August 1916, when Shackleton and the ship’s captain Frank Worsley, who had months earlier led a small group on a voyage to a whaling station in South Georgia to get help, were finally able to return to rescue the rest of the crew.
On 5th March this year, 100 years to the day when Sir Ernest Shackleton was buried on South Georgia, history was made when the Endurance22 Expedition, organised and funded by the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust, succeeded in their aims to locate, survey and film the shipwreck.
One of the expedition team members was Wayne Auton, an Advanced Retrieval Practitioner who usually responds to major trauma and the retrieval of critically ill or injured patients throughout Scotland and the Islands, alongside a Consultant. On the expedition, Wayne’s role was Paramedic and Field Guide, responsible for the safety and wellbeing of teams when they deployed onto the sea ice.
We spoke to Wayne to find out more about his time on the expedition and how his career pathway led him to being part of the team who made this remarkable discovery.
Speaking of how he prepared for the role, Wayne said, “I’m lucky, I’ve had a lot of experience of working in cold environments primarily within the Arctic circle. I’m also a keen mountaineer and climber, so I know how to suffer, which can be a daily occurrence in these environments when the weather is bad.
On expeditions like this one, you have to be confident in your ability as a medic as you are a long way from any definitive medical care in Antarctica. So, I made sure I recapped on areas of my practice that I wasn't using on a regular basis such as suturing, and minor injury and illness.”
As well as working on physical fitness for a trip like this, it’s important to prepare mentally.
“It won’t always be fun and there will be highs and lows. I knew there were going to be times when I wasn't going to be doing much, when sailing out to the search site for example, and so I knew I would have to keep myself occupied. Looking after yourself is vital on these expeditions as if you don't do that you cannot fulfil your role of looking after the team.”
Even during the preparations for an expedition, medics can be hit with a few curveballs.
“Unfortunately, I did not get the medical kit until I reached South Africa a few days before the start of the expedition. This was not ideal but most things I had asked for were there, however a large amount of the medication were written in Afrikaans which was interesting.”
Fortunately, Wayne did not have to deal with many medical incidents on the Endurance22 Expedition, but the crew was ready to deal with a number of things that could have occurred.
“The S.A. Agulhas II
is an awesome ship with some really cool kit on board. There was a hospital and ships doctor onboard, which is a good job as I have no idea how to use an X-ray machine. The hospital was fully stocked with everything you could need to look after several patients at a time including a three-bed ward, an operating/resus room, a ventilator, and even a bath. Due to the remote location of the expedition a comprehensive medevac plan was in place. It involved flying a patient using the ship’s helicopter to a base on the Antarctic peninsula that has a runway, and then onward flight to a hospital on the mainland of South America. It sounds pretty simple saying it, but it is pretty complex with fuelling and weather.”
I’m a firm believer in prevention is better than the cure. It’s about having a good public health message and stopping things happening before they become problems. Obviously, working in Antarctica is cold so it’s important to highlight relevant conditions such as hypothermia, cold injuries, snow blindness and dehydration. But we were also working with some very heavy equipment, so trauma was always a possibility.”
The S.A Agulhas II
Not only does Wayne share a birthday with Sir Ernest Shackleton, but he was actually onboard S.A. Agulhas II
during the expedition this year.
“I’ve had some birthdays in some far-flung places and in some crazy situations, but this was up there. It was really nice, everyone gathered in the lounge onboard and presented me with a special Endurance22 birthday cake and sang ‘Happy Birthday’. Trying to cut the cake into 65 slices wasn’t the easiest.”
It’s no surprise that it was a special moment when the wreck of Endurance
“Part of the job of being an expedition medic is also just digging in and doing whatever is needed and so when we weren’t on the ice, I had shifts working on the back deck with the underwater search helping with the launch and recovery of the AUV, so, I was quite close to the action. We actually had a few false alarms throughout the trip. But then when you’re on an expedition like this, for a long time in a small space you really get to know people and how they act. When I saw some of the underwater search team members acting a bit differently, I thought something must be going on. Then there was the odd wink and wry smile from some of them in the know and I knew we must had found it.”
The team actually found the wreck relatively near the end of the trip so not only was there a massive buzz of excitement there was also a huge sense of relief. Seeing the first footage of the wreck coming out of the darkness was unreal and everyone was just in shock at the great condition it was in. It was an incredible feeling and wonderful to have been part of it all. Moral certainly improved after that day, we were even allowed two cans of beer that night (it’s a dry ship normally).”
For me the highlights apart from finding the wreck have been the wildlife. There are so many different animals to see, and the penguins are so curious and will walk right up to you. We’ve been fortunate to have seen Adélie, King and Emperor Penguins, minke whales coming up into the pool we made in the ice for the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV), Wandering Albatross, and Leopard, Fur and Weddle seals - it’s an amazing place. Also getting everyone back to Cape Town in one piece is an obvious highlight.”
The stern on the Endurance shipwreck found in the Weddell Sea. Photo credit: Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust/National Geographic
Wayne’s paramedic career began after leaving the Royal Marines. Wayne was unsure what to do next and a neighbour said they thought he would enjoy being a paramedic, so he decided to start his new career path, being a student paramedic with the North East Ambulance Service until 2009.
“Once qualified I did several years on the road ensuring I built up my experience, then wanting to develop my skills and experience in critical care I moved to Scotland in 2012 for a job as a Helicopter Technical Crew Member with Scotland’s Air Ambulance.”
From there I moved onto working on Search & Rescue as a Winchman for a couple of years for a private company providing support to UK Oil and Gas, before moving to where I am now, the Emergency Medical Retrieval Service (EMRS). I decided to make the move as I have always been interested in critical care and I really enjoy working in high pressure environments. At EMRS I completed the Diploma in Retrieval & Transfer Medicine as well as my PgDip, and have started my Masters.”
Advising others on how to move into expedition medicine, Wayne notes, “I probably made my life difficult and chose the wrong pathway to be an expedition medic. There are obviously transferable skills from my current role such as leadership, communication, teamwork, dealing with pressure, but clinically I rarely use my critical care skills. The route I would recommend would be an urgent care route. Minor illness and injuries are the more likely to be seen and Urgent Care would give you a massive base and knowledge to call upon. The trauma side of things will come from your paramedic background anyway.”
I would also suggest having another skill as most of the time on expedition, being a medic is secondary to other things. Maybe gain an outdoor leadership qualification such as summer/winter mountain leader. The more you can offer an expedition the more likely you are to be accepted onto it.”
Networking is huge so doing an expedition medicine course would allow you to get an insight into expedition medicine, but also meet like-minded people. There are so many courses and providers out there, make sure you do your homework and like the content they offer.”
Finally, I think it’s really important to be able to look after yourself in the environment you will be working. When the weather is at its worst and things are going wrong that’s normally when you need to step up as a medic. For example, be a mountaineer first, then a medic when working in the mountains.”
Wayne is already planning for his next few expeditions.
“We are planning a climbing trip to Tajikistan with the U.K. Alpine club. Alongside this I have a big project supporting a really cool guy doing some amazing stuff, but you will have to wait for that one.”
When asked of the College of Paramedics’ future development, Wayne, who has been a College member since qualifying, said he would like to see the College to continue to outline paramedics’ worth and provide them with a knowledge of all the possibilities that are out there for them.
“It’s nice to know there are people speaking up on our behalf and driving the profession forward.”
The profession has come a long way even in the short time I’ve been a paramedic. When I joined, we were still looked upon as ambulance drivers with a stretcher, a blanket and a packet of Polo mints, so for me I think recognising our own worth and the value we bring to the NHS and wider communities is one of the biggest challenges facing paramedics today. We are doing great things and offering our patients alternative pathways than just emergency departments.”
Speaking of what he thinks are the other biggest challenges facing paramedics today, Wayne continues, “Mental health amongst the profession is currently a big issue and after the last couple of years it’s important that we prevent poor mental health, recognise it, and offer help and advice when needed.”
Also, it’s about recognising that it’s not all ambulance work. We can sometimes be sucked into the routine. There’s so many opportunities and different things that can be done alongside the day job, humanitarian work, expeditions, mountain rescue, education. In my view these things can only improve us as clinicians and humans.”
I’m not sure I’m qualified to give advice, I’m the boy that never grew up! Which probably makes me a good expedition medic. But my advice would be to every now and then step out of your routine and see what else is out there for you as a paramedic.”
We’d like to say a big thank you to Wayne for taking the time to tell us about his recent adventure. You can find out more about the Endurance22 Expedition at endurance22.org and take a look back at Wayne’s journey on his Instagram account @wayneauton