Interview: Dr Rowley Cottingham

Jill Boulton interviews Visorcat customer Dr Rowley Cottingham, one of the top emergency medics in the UK who has saved more lives than most of us have had fuel stops. Here, he talks bikes, his work in emergency medicine, and asks why motorcycle racers don’t always get the best treatment when they crash …

It’s interesting to meet medics who ride motorbikes, especially ones who specialise in emergency medicine! How do you reconcile the two?

It perhaps shows which came first! Before I went to medical school I did all sorts of jobs to raise money, and needed some wheels pronto. In those days you could literally buy something small and ride off on it with just a set of L-plates attached, and so I was soon the proud owner of a 1964 vintage Mobylette. They hadn’t thought of centre stands in those days, and so I started it by pedalling it laboriously up and down the road. I still remember the number plate started with AKN – mainly because my mother, out of sympathy, nicknamed it Aching Nuts! I have been a regular biker ever since then. I was delighted to find out that it’s absolutely right that nurses adore leather trousers. People do look astonished when they see me arriving in A&E in leathers, but I point out that I have dealt with many more car drivers than bikers over the years…

So it’s true what they say about nurses! Presumably, you’ll have done some advanced rider training then …

I am a huge proponent of advanced driving. I think that the old adage of walk, then bicycle, then bike, then car is still absolutely the right way to go. It means that you have seen roads from all perspectives and learn to respect all other road users. This means that particularly as a car driver you are much more aware of bikes. One of the things I have been very proud of is the training I received to support the ambulance services all times of day and night in blue-light level driving, and whilst not all drivers and riders need all the skills of high-speed driving I don’t know anyone who couldn’t be a better road user. My trainer insisted I did the IAM course to prepare me for the arduous blue light training. This was brilliant preparation, and I believe that everyone who is at all interested in safe, courteous, intelligent riding and driving should do it. I can tell who has been through an advanced course simply by following them along the road – it really makes that much difference to your riding and driving. I am a member of the local advanced biking group, ESAM, and I discovered another unexpected benefit of advanced motorcycling – you get to go on the best road trips around the UK and Europe!

OK, so how would you advise your fellow motorcyclists to stay alive while riding? Do you have ONE pearl of wisdom to pass on?

I do have one phrase I repeat to myself constantly; “Your wits are your bumpers.” On a bike, you are (well, you should be) very conscious of your vulnerability. The best way to survive a crash is not to have it in the first place, and there are three things that are absolutely essential for safe biking; observation, observation and observation. I wear spectacles and I am obsessive about them being clean, windscreens being clean and visors being clean. I am always thinking about where I will go in an emergency, and how to keep a safe bubble of space around me.

So, back to your professional life, please tell me about Bodychillz. What is it and what gave you the idea?

Ah, you have heard about that too. Well, I have a complicated life. As I said, I went up through the ranks to Consultant in Emergency Medicine at a major trauma centre and along the way got involved in lots of projects. One amazing one was a worldwide study planned into 20,000 people with brain injuries and a specific form of treatment for them. It was, appropriately enough called “CRASH”. We stopped it half way through when it became obvious that, for from being a useful treatment it was actually worsening the outcome. It ended up being published in one of the world’s most prestigious medical journals, The Lancet, and so whenever anyone looks up brain injury, my name pops up as an expert – which is nice. A small local company was developing some extraordinary cooling technology as another way of protecting brains after injury and wanted some expert advice. They found me simply by Googling, “brain injury expert near me” which is a bit different from looking for “curry houses near me”! We talked, and we came up with a body cooling device. We formed Bodychillz Ltd and over the last 3 years have worked immensely hard to create our flagship device, CAERvest®., if you want to look. This is the only product in the world capable of cooling people that can be stored at room temperature, doesn’t need refrigeration and is portable. It has saved many lives already, particularly in the Brighton and London marathons. It means that I have had to cut my hours in the NHS somewhat.

And Emergency Unit Ltd? What’s that all about?

As part of my portfolio of skills, I have become very used to dealing with people who have suffered injury and assessing how they heal and recover. I was approached many years ago by solicitors to assess people to help decide on compensation, and this has just built and built. I get a huge number of requests these days. This has now extended to medical negligence work, and I am so busy that I need support, so I use Emergency Unit Ltd to run the business efficiently.

OK, so enough of the professional stuff! What bike(s) do you ride and why?

I get attached to my bikes, and change them comparatively rarely. Daft really, there are so many gorgeous bikes out there. Once I had developed thigh muscles to rival a professional bicycle racer starting that wretched moped, my Mum took pity on me and I was able to buy my first real bike, a CG125 single cylinder Honda. I passed my test on this, despite getting lost! In those days, a man stood at the side of the road with a clipboard and sent you off round the block. I was first rider of the day, and what he didn’t know was that the first road just round the corner had been closed by workmen that morning and they were diverting everyone on some long detour. I finally got back for the emergency stop after about 15 minutes. Still, I got my ticket. The Honda lasted a couple of years before I needed something bigger to go to university and I bought an extraordinary bike, a Suzuki GT380. This was a two-stroke triple with 4 exhausts. The huge mass of metal in these exhausts cooled the oil quickly round London, but when I went home and it warmed up I laid a smoke trail like the Space Shuttle going off! That was followed by the best bike of the late 1970s, a Suzuki GS750 which I did big miles on. My only mistake was following that with a GT1000 shaft drive, which was a horrible wallowy thing. That soon went and I stayed on the 750. When the children were small I stopped for about five years and then moved to a VFR800. This was probably my favourite bike, but only a couple of years ago I decided that I fancied a change and moved to my present bike, a Triumph Explorer 1200. This is a fabulous mile-coverer and unbelievably luxurious with heated seats and handlebars. There is already a new version out with electronic suspension I have my eye on.

There is a picture of me somewhere on a GS750! What sort of riding do you do and where?

I took that 750 everywhere, including the South of France on holiday staying high in the hills above Monaco for the Grand Prix. I am lucky to live in a county that boasts exactly 12 miles of motorway, so have lots of bendy roads to enjoy. It is dreadfully crowded at times, so you need to keep those observation skills to the fore. I happily ride to work. I have recently been on road trips to Belgium and France, but not this year.

OK, so what bikes do you hanker after?

I have been so lucky in life; being a doctor opens so many doors to meet incredible people and try so many things. I help out at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, and get to see decades of race bikes close up. I am lucky enough to have met many heroes; Foggy, Kevin Schwantz, Shaky Byrne and Damon Hill among many others. Perhaps the most memorable moment with a motorcycle racer was when I was covering a test session for F1 at Brands Hatch in the 1990s. Frank Williams and Ken Tyrrell were testing their cars. During the morning, Ken came over to me and asked if I minded staying around over lunch as a friend of his was bringing his bike over to do a few laps. Of course not. This small slight slightly stooped figure appeared, pushing a black bike. I needed only one glance, but still did a double-take. It was John Surtees, and in his hands was his own Vincent Black Shadow. It was absolutely no problem to watch him blazing round Brands Hatch all lunchtime. I met him several times years later, but I felt truly privileged that day. I’d love to ride that bike, and perhaps Giacomo Agostini’s incredible, jewel-like MV Augusta 500 – but I’m far too tall for that!

Have you ever come off?

Yes, three times. Once when I had a tank-slapper on the M4 which give me some impressive gravel rash, once when I tried to go to work on a freezing morning and hit some black ice at about 5mph and once when I was filtering past some stationary traffic and a young lady decided to turn right. I saw her doing it and stopped, but she managed to hit my front wheel with her back bumper and tip me over anyway. Never broken a bone, though. I clocked up 45 years in the saddle this year.

And here’s to many more, Rowley. Please, do tell me about your emergency work in motorsport

Something has always puzzled me about motorsport. Why would any motorsport lover pay to watch racing? If you are passionate about motorsport, whatever you do during the week, you can train as a marshal and watch for free. There is a downside in that occasionally you have to help push fabulous racing machinery off the track and chat to famous racers – but who minds that? I have officiated in all sorts of places all over Europe; Brands Hatch, Silverstone, Spa, Le Mans, Zolder – all iconic wonderful circuits, and, again being a doctor has taken me there. I love watching the racing so if a crash happens I have to stop watching and get to work – great (I hope) for the poor competitor, but I lose touch with the race. The advent of modern social media means you are likely to be on world-wide view at any time. I remember a SEAT Leon that rolled spectacularly into a marshals’ post at Brands Hatch. By the time the driver arrived with me in the medical centre, about 400m away, I had already watched his crash on YouTube. What’s my favourite racing? Anything with proper wheel to wheel battles. With one exception. To paraphrase Sir Arnold Bax; “You should make a point of trying every experience once, except incest and truck racing.”

And do you have any unfulfilled ambitions, either personally or professionally?

Whilst I have officiated at all sorts of sporting events, I have only ever covered one motorcycle race. I was so appalled at the way the organisers dealt with injured riders so that racing could continue I refused to cover another again. In car racing, in no small part due to the efforts of Jackie Stewart and my dear friend, now lost to us, Professor Sid Watkins, everything is neutralised or stops if a driver is injured. The Chief Medical Officer and Rescue Unit chief take charge and are given the space and time they need to resuscitate and extricate the driver. Despite some incredible efforts, most notably by a great friend of mine in the Isle of Man, Dr David Stevens, the pressure to put on the next race sometimes means that riders can get second best care. I would appeal for all racing to be neutralised or stopped, riders left where they fall to be treated and made safe before being moved and for organisers to be sure that they put the welfare of competitors at the heart of all they do.

Thanks very much for your time, Rowley, that was very interesting. It was a pleasure to interview you. Ride safe!