Alumni

Alumni profile - Harry Walmsley

I was a senior registrar at Kings College Hospital on a year’s rotation to Brighton when I had a major crash on the A23 colliding with a lamppost. I spent 3 weeks on ICU and 5 months in hospital and had my right leg amputated above the knee, major reconstruction of my left knee and 92 units of blood during my time in hospital. My wife was told that I had a 50:50 chance of surviving. 

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Why did you study Medicine? What sparked your interest in this specific degree?

I was always going to study medicine as I grew up in a medical family - my father was an anaesthetist. At school, the subjects I excelled in were the sciences and medicine offered various opportunities to use my interest through clinical work in many different specialties but also through lecturing or research.

However, as a teenager I was very squeamish; I felt faint when my dad spoke about operations and this feeling only increased when he took me to operating theatres when I was 17! I was incredibly nervous as to how I would cope at medical school, but it turned out not to be an issue in the end.

Why did you choose to study at The London Hospital Medical College in particular?

There were 3 main reasons. Firstly, my dad had been there and still had friends at The London so a bit of the devil you know. Secondly, as an August baby I was only just 18 when I left home so the LHMC was easier for me to get home to Chelmsford at weekends if I wanted to and I had a girlfriend at the time back home (which later become irrelevant). Thirdly, the LHMC was the only place out of my 5 choices that gave me an interview and later a place.

What aspects of your degree did you find most enjoyable?

When I went to the LHMC I thought I would have to work really hard to do ok as I assumed that everyone would be far more intelligent than me. However, I was wrong - we were all roughly the same ability. This meant that I could ease back and enjoy some of the more social side of university life. Making seven lifelong friends was the most enjoyable and special thing about my time at The London. It has been over 47 years since we first met, and we still meet up every year. Our whole year still meets up every 5 years also!

In terms of specific modules, anatomy dissection was enjoyable, a large part due to the social aspect of getting to know the 8 on your dissecting table, which I hope doesn’t sound too disrespectful to our "patient"! The 2 months of obstetrics was also satisfying as it felt good to do something practical by delivering babies. Interestingly, the module that I had the least interest in was anaesthetics, so it is strange that I ended up making this specialty my career choice!

Overcoming my accident and the aftermath was largely a state of mind issue and I found the best form of therapy was seeing someone else get through what I had to get through. I have a good friend who was at medical school with me who is also an amputee so I could see that it was possible to get over what I had experienced and lead a normal life.

In March 1987, you had a major car crash which ultimately resulted in the loss of your right leg above your knee. How did you overcome this challenging period in your life and what motivated you to get back into the medical field after a year off work?

I was a senior registrar at Kings College Hospital on a year’s rotation to Brighton when I had a major crash on the A23 colliding with a lamppost. I spent 3 weeks on ICU and 5 months in hospital and had my right leg amputated above the knee, major reconstruction of my left knee and 92 units of blood during my time in hospital. My wife was told that I had a 50:50 chance of surviving. As I slowly recovered in hospital, I got very depressed with one setback after another: Would I ever walk again? Would I be able to continue my career?

So, what do you do? One of two things. You can curl up in a corner and give up, or you can pick yourself up and get on with life. I chose the latter. I had a lot to live for. I had been applying for consultant posts at the time of my accident and I knew I could get myself back to work. And I had a wife and an 8-month-old son with special needs that needed me working. I was super fit as I had been training for the London marathon which I am sure helped my recovery, as did my strong personality and never say die approach. Getting my first limb prosthesis was a major turning point. Two months later I was back at work.

Overcoming my accident and the aftermath was largely a state of mind issue and I found the best form of therapy was seeing someone else get through what I had to get through. I have a good friend who was at medical school with me who is also an amputee so I could see that it was possible to get over what I had experienced and lead a normal life. During my time as a consultant I actually offered my services to go and talk to patients who were about to have an amputation and I think they found it helpful to realise you could carry on your life afterwards. Working with a vascular surgeon for 23 years meant many of these patients ended up on my operating lists. Occasionally I would meet one of them in town a few months or years later who remembered me and said how useful it had been talking to me prior to their surgery. I always put on my best walking every time I saw them!

Harry Walmsley as a student

Can you describe your career since you graduated in 1978 both before and after your crash?

After graduating in 1978 I did my first 6-month house job in medicine at Mile End. I found gastroenterology particularly interesting and thought that would be my career choice. However, my second house job was at The London and 3 months of this was spent in the emergency department. Here I was persuaded by 2 experienced nursing sisters that my interest in emergency medicine would be better suited to a career in anaesthetics as that specialty looked after Intensive Care. I therefore started a career in anaesthetics in 1979 at The London, passed my primary, and then moved to Whipps Cross in 1980 as a registrar which gave me outstanding clinical experience. After a year there I moved to Kings as a registrar and passed my final fellowship and in January 1983 was promoted to Senior Registrar. This included rotations to Bromley, the Brook, and Brighton.

In 1984 I spent a year in Dallas, Texas as a Visiting Assistant Professor in Anaesthesiology. This was a great experience and it allowed me to complete some research which was presented at international meetings and published. On returning to England I continued my senior registrar post and rotated to Brighton for a year starting in the summer of 1986. And then my accident happened.

Returning to work 11 days short of a year off work I started applying again for consultant posts and in June 1988 I was appointed at Eastbourne. It was a great place to work as well as being a beautiful part of the country. I was well supported by the anaesthetic department and hospital and I had a great career until retiring at the age of 60 in 2015. During my 27 years in Eastbourne I was able to not only anaesthetise for regular operating lists in the fantastic specialties of vascular and head and neck surgery, but to follow my educational interests which were primarily in Resuscitation and trauma care. Not a surprise after what had happened to me in 1987! I was also allowed the time to be on 4 national committees (not all at the same time) - Resuscitation Council UK, Society for Education in Anaesthesia, Anaesthetists as Educator Committee at the RCA, and the ATLS Steering Group at the RCS, as well as to publish research. And in my last 15 years I was Clinical and Divisional Director in my Trust!

Did your experience and the care you received after your crash affect how you subsequently treated your own patients?

I have always treated my patients the way I would wish myself and my family to be treated. And yes, my own experiences of being a patient did make me more aware of certain things than I had been before, particularly on Critical Care. For example, how disturbing noise is to recovering patients on the unit; how vulnerable patients feel when they leave the unit and go to the ward and how disturbing septic delirium is as a patient. All three I experienced myself and I then did my best to support patients on Critical Care who experienced them.

I had a great career until retiring at the age of 60 in 2015. During my 27 years in Eastbourne I was able to not only anaesthetise for regular operating lists in the fantastic specialties of vascular and head and neck surgery, but to follow my educational interests which were primarily in Resuscitation and trauma care. Not a surprise after what had happened to me in 1987!

Is there any advice you would give to current medical students or recent medical graduates considering their career options?

I would say keep an open mind. What do you want out of a career? Lots of patient contact, lots of practical skills, wanting to care for critically ill patients, caring for the elderly, diagnostic medicine, don’t want to do on calls? All these things will influence your career choice. In my experience the choice of the 2-year Foundation post rotation often helps in deciding upon a career choice; I have seen this influence people in wanting to do anaesthesia and Critical Care. Don’t forget that your choice of career is pretty permanent, and lastly, medicine is a vocation - if you think of it as a 9-5 job then you will never get the most out of your career.

What motivational words would you give to someone who must similarly overcome adversity or a challenging period in their life?

Never give up. Whatever happens to you there is still plenty you have to offer. Treat it as a challenge to be overcome. As they say there are plenty of people worse off. I was very relaxed about my injuries to the extent that theatre staff would say to me if I was a bit grumpy: "Harry if you don’t be quiet we will take your leg off and throw it out of the window". I was once asked the question by a room full of theatre staff: "Harry when you swim do you go round in circles?" I found that relaxed approach about my disability was great for all - including myself. It was just another hurdle to overcome. I was determined to get the most out of my career regardless of my disability. Even after 2 knee replacements on my left knee during my consultant career I was not going to be beaten. If anything, I had to be held back.

Harry Walmsley with fellow clinical students, 1975

Lastly, what was special about your time at The London?

I think the most important thing is that the medical school, as it was in Turner Street, and the hospital were one and the same. And the medical school was small and not part of a general university campus which made it more personal. As a student we all felt part of the Whitechapel and East End community as a result. The London Hospital Medical College seemed to pick out people at interview as well as at A level grade regardless of background which meant that it was a down to earth environment and cohort. We felt part of the local area, visiting the local pubs, restaurants and the Whitechapel market on Saturdays. Having the nursing school on site was also an added bonus.

Visiting other areas in London was easy with buses and the underground at hand. Being a student during the unbelievably hot summers of 1975 and 1976 led to plenty of outside activity. Our social lives were great. One memory that stands out was doing the Guinness Stroll which was a 26-mile walk (some ran it) with beer refreshment stops on the way all sponsored by the makers of Guinness. The success in completing the walk resulted in a free dinner a few weeks later with all the beer you could drink hosted by the manufacturer! The hostel bar at Christmas was also a highlight with the bar staying open quite often until breakfast, but of course there was studying that had to be done as well!

This profile was conducted by Alumni Engagement Officer, Nicole Brownfield. If you would like to get in touch with Harry or engage him in your work, please contact Nicole at n.brownfield@qmul.ac.uk.