12 FYi • Profile

Expedition medic Dr Matt Wilkes talks about a passion for adventure that has taken him around the world


ARAGLIDER and aviation fanatic Dr Matt Wilkes really is flying high. Not only do his own adventurous pursuits take him skyward but his career does too, having worked as a flying doctor treating patients across Africa and jetted to far-flung countries for his remote medical missions. It was whilst studying at medical school 15 years ago

that Matt, then aged 21, enjoyed a life-changing research trip to Bolivia. It was there he realised he could combine his zest for adventure with his professional ambitions by pursuing a career in remote medicine. Just days after returning from a three-month stint in Nepal, the

registrar from Edinburgh tells FYi: “I was delighted you could mix medicine with adventure and science, so through university, and ever since, I have made that my focus.”

Privilege Now in year five of seven of his anaesthesia training, the doctor – who has taken two career breaks – has been to New Zealand, Africa, Bolivia, India, Colombia and Nepal. During one memorable trip, he helped to evacuate peacekeeping

troops from Somalia while working as a flight physician with East Africa’s AMREF Flying Doctors. Matt describes it as a “dream job” and recalls flying in three different types of aircraft to 13 countries, including to Mogadishu and the Kenya-Somalia border. “I was able to see an aspect of medicine that I would not have seen otherwise, not being a military doctor, ” he says. The tough conditions are a far cry from his work in NHS hospitals

and, Matt says, serve as a “constant reminder of how privileged we are.” The experience also hones his skills as a doctor. “Practising in different

places helps clarify what works and what we do simply according to tradition,” he says. “Working in different contexts highlights the elements of practice that are universal and effective.”

Worthwhile work While in Nepal as a volunteer doctor with the International Porter Protection Group (IPPG) his main remit, along with that of his GP wife Ellie, was to treat trekking porters in the Everest region. The group was set up in a bid to improve the working conditions of porters, who are often poorly equipped and paid a minimal wage. The common theme of his work there was high altitude illness – and

everything from coughs, colds and travellers’ diarrhoea, to treating local children. Matt says: “The porters carry up to 30kg but most are lowlanders

rather than Sherpa, so are no more adapted to altitude than you or I. They can get really sick, so it felt like worthwhile work.” During one dramatic night, he had to care for an 18-year-old porter

who was brought unconscious to the room where Matt and his wife were sleeping at 3am. Matt says: “He had fluid on his brain, causing it to swell and increasing

the pressure within his skull. Left untreated it could have been fatal. My wife and I gave him medicines and oxygen and about 90 minutes later, he was talking again. We were then able to evacuate him further down the mountain.”

Unpredictable “Extremely fortunate” is how Matt feels when he reflects on the direction medicine has taken him. However, his expeditions are not always without personal difficulties. At the end of his Nepalese adventure, he

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