Interview with Richard Lyon

We talk emergency responses to terrorist attacks, geekiness and happy memories of the Olympic Games with Surrey’s professor of medicine

July 6, 2017
Richard Lyon
Richard Lyon

Richard Lyon is professor in pre-hospital emergency medicine at the University of Surrey. Before academia, he had a career in pre-hospital medicine: he was one of the lead doctors at the London 2012 Olympic Games and was deployed to Nepal after the 2015 earthquake, as part of the UK International Search and Rescue Team. Alongside his Surrey role, he is a consultant in emergency medicine and pre-hospital care at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh and associate medical director of Kent, Surrey and Sussex Air Ambulance Trust. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh, he was appointed MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in June for services to emergency healthcare.

Where and when were you born?
Luxembourg, October 1981.

How has this shaped you?
It gave me a very multilingual, broad education. I was a volunteer fireman from the age of 14, which undoubtedly was my first interest in emergency care. 

What were your immediate thoughts when you were informed of your MBE?
I was surprised and very humbled, particularly as I’m privileged to work with some truly inspiring people. I felt a sense of pride that pre-hospital emergency care had been recognised as a specialty.

Pre-hospital emergency care has been in the national news recently, due to the terrorist attacks. As a fellow professional in this area, what was your assessment of the response to these incidents?
We live in a new world of threat from terrorism, as recent incidents highlight. These events put enormous strain on the emergency services. The London ambulance, fire and police services responded [to the London Bridge attack] with complete professionalism, and I am in awe of their ability to respond not just to one, but to several recent major incidents. Quite rightly, they are now seen as the world leaders in this field and should be very proud of their response to recent events. They are real heroes. 

The events were horrendous for the victims and their families but also for the emergency services. As a practitioner, what kinds of emotions does one go through?
At the time, we do what we are trained to do and we just get on with the job. That’s why we do what we do. Letting emotions come into play can distract us from accomplishing the clinical tasks at hand. Quiet reflection comes later, after the incident, when we feel normal human emotions too.

Do the accounts of these events, sadly, become teaching opportunities for academics in your field?
It’s vital that we draw as many lessons as possible from any emergency incident. There is always something that we can learn and share with others to make sure that we are better prepared and will handle a similar emergency in the future, even better than the last one. Academic pre-hospital care has an important role to play in analysing and disseminating these lessons.

How difficult was it to deal with such a devastating natural disaster in Nepal?
I had never seen a disaster of such enormous scale before. The power of Mother Nature to inflict total destruction across such a wide area was overwhelming. We saw houses that had been completely flattened and whole mountainsides collapsed into valleys. Shepherds out with their sheep had literally been engulfed by the earth. Physically it was very demanding – I never slept more than four hours a night, and often we worked through the night. My overriding emotion was of sheer admiration for the Nepalese people. They were literally rebuilding their lives, calmly and effectively. Despite their devastating personal losses, they welcomed us with open arms, even offering us their last items of food. I felt truly humbled and I often wonder how the families, and in particular the children, who I treated are doing now. When the rescue teams and television cameras leave, we mustn’t forget the people of Nepal face a lifetime of rebuilding.

What was being one of the lead doctors at the London Olympic Games like?
A fantastic experience. I’ve never seen so many strangers, all volunteers, come together in such a positive, friendly, brilliant team to deliver such an amazing event. The buzz around London 2012 was simply electric. I remember sitting on the Underground in my Games uniform and random strangers just wanting to chat. That doesn’t happen on an average day in London.

What has changed most in global higher education in the past 10 years?
There has been a big move towards university-accredited training with so many more degree options now available. Areas such as paramedicine now have excellent academic career frameworks, and there are many more opportunities to undertake research, even in areas such as emergency healthcare. 

What is the biggest misconception about your field of study?
I always knew that medicine would be hard work and a true vocation, perhaps I underestimated just how much of my life I’d spend doing it and the personal sacrifices that I would make. I never see it as work, though: to me, it’s all just part of living. 

What keeps you awake at night?
My on-call phone ringing when an air ambulance crew calls me from the scene of a serious incident for some advice.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
A big geek. 

What’s your most memorable moment at university?
I remember my father having a sudden cardiac death. I knew that I was going to have to take a deep breath, dig deep and just get on with training to be an emergency doctor. The university was so supportive and kind to me; everyone went out of their way to help me. 

What brings you comfort?
Patients coming back to the air ambulance base to say “hi” and “thanks” is one of the best parts of my job. We meet patients in some terrible situations – trapped in crashed cars, having been rescued from burning buildings or having sustained multiple serious injuries. Getting to see them again when they have rebuilt their lives is the most rewarding thing I can imagine.

What saddens you?
We can’t save all the patients we are called to. Watching children die, particularly in tragic accidents, is always very difficult. 

What do you do for fun?
I like to keep fit; it’s important in my job to have high levels of endorphins. I run, cycle and go to the gym.  

What’s your biggest regret?
Not partying more at university.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
The best is getting to help people in the most vulnerable, critical, dangerous time of their life and making things better for them. The worst is not getting much sleep.



Rachael Gooberman-Hill is to be the new director of the University of Bristol’s Elizabeth Blackwell Institute for Health Research. Professor Gooberman-Hill, who joined Bristol in 2000, takes up her position next month. Her research has covered clinical decision-making, organisation of healthcare and people’s experiences of long-term health conditions. “With support from the Wellcome Trust, the institute works to build interdisciplinary health research communities by bringing together Bristol’s uniquely talented academics who are committed to research that has real impact on people’s health and well-being,” Professor Gooberman-Hill said. “My aim is to make sure that the institute will continue in its work to deliver the best possible research.”

Stuart Croft, vice-chancellor of the University of Warwick, has been appointed chair of the board of trustees at the Equality Challenge Unit. Professor Croft succeeds Janet Beer, vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool. Professor Croft, who was already a GuildHE/Universities UK nominee on the ECU’s board, became Warwick vice-chancellor in February 2016. “It is a great privilege to take up this role to champion our commitment to equality and diversity,” he said.

Rob Bristow has been appointed director of the Manchester Cancer Research Centre at the University of Manchester. He takes up his position in August.

The University of Helsinki has selected Kaarle Hämeri as its next chancellor. Professor Hämeri will begin his five-year term in October.

Ali Mobasheri from the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Surrey has been inaugurated as president-elect of the Osteoarthritis Research Society International.

Lyn Gardner, one of the UK’s leading theatre critics, has been announced as a master on the MA in dramatic writing course at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London.

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