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A sky high career from LifeFlight Air Crewman to American surgeon

Accompanying a friend and crew member to the Gold Coast Helicopter Service base in 1986, Mark London was instantly absorbed into the adrenaline-fueled world of aeromedical rescue at the age of 16. 

Observing the crew and helping out with odd jobs around the hangar, each day Mark would watch the helicopter take off on another lifesaving rescue mission. 

Inspired, Mark knew his dream was to one day be part of the crew.

“To earn a spot back in those days you just had to show an interest and put some time and effort into it. We were all volunteers back then,” remembers Mark.

At the hangar Mark was introduced to one of the Queensland Ambulance Service paramedics, Phil Kendrick who worked on the chopper. Mark was shown first hand what it meant to be on the frontline of duty.

In those days ambulance training was done ‘on the job’ and Phil took Mark under his wing to show him the tricks of the trade.

In 1988 Mark became an honorary ambulance officer and was offered a full-time position at the Gold Coast base which had only recently rebranded as the now iconic rescue helicopter service, Careflight, now LifeFlight. He was the youngest ambulance officer to be employed in one of the prestigious positions.

Mark knew he wanted to further his education and training in the field he had grown to love and decided to pursue a Bachelor of Science in Nursing at Griffith University on the Gold Coast campus, studying part-time while continuing to work as a paramedic on the RACQ LifeFlight chopper.

“I wanted to increase my education so I ended up studying towards my nursing degree to get extra skills,” said Mark.

With only one semester to go before graduation, Mark took his long-service leave and headed off on the trip of a lifetime, travelling the world and backpacking throughout North America and Europe.

During his travels Mark paid a visit to his aunt and uncle who were living in Alaska at the time.

 “I absolutely loved it there,” remembers Mark who fell in love with the vast Arctic tundra and decided to stay in Alaska and work as a paramedic in Anchorage.

“I ended up getting into paramedic school there and becoming a paramedic in the USA and one of the jobs I did was to work at a local ambulance service in Alaska. 

“I also worked for the local hospital and one of the jobs I did there was general ward duties including taking blood from patients which complemented my ambulance skills.”

To get his qualifications certified in Alaska, Mark completed an intense 18 month course which saw part of his clinical training completed in Detroit in 1998.

Detroit in the 90’s was in the midst a severe crack cocaine epidemic and many residents who, if they hadn’t already, fell into the dark, drug underbelly of the city.

Gang violence was rife and Mark remembers many nights spent over the bodies of gunshot victims and knocking on the doors of already broken families to tell their mothers and fathers yet another one of their sons and daughters had been killed. 

“Detroit was known for its trauma. At that time it was the leading city for murders in the country,” said Mark.

The violent gang and drug-filled city brought its own share of challenges but in retrospect, Mark says it was the best ‘classroom’ for a paramedic as there was no shortage of multi-trauma cases.

Mark had been thinking for some time of pursuing a career as a surgeon. At the age of 30 he went back to college and studied at the University of Alaska in Anchorage towards a Bachelor of Natural Science Pre-Med which acted as a bridging course before he was accepted into Medical School in May 2001.

It was the realisation of a long-held dream - the seed of the idea to become a doctor having been sown during his formative years working as a rescue crewman and medic on the LifeFlight helicopters.

 “As a LifeFlight crew member I would go observe theatre cases at the Gold Coast Hospital, and it was these experiences along with all the other pre-hospital emergency care that I provided as a LifeFlight crew and ambulance officer that created the foundation for me becoming a surgeon,” he recalls.

After graduation Mark was accepted into the University of Chicago’s general surgery residency program and throughout the six years of his training, all his adult trauma surgery was completed at Cook County Hospital in Chicago, the hospital synonymous for featuring in the popular TV show, ‘ER’. 

His training on both the Lifeflight Rescue helicopters and his time in Detroit helped to prepare Mark for the chaotic Cook County operating theatre.

“There was such a high level of trauma. On a busy weekend summer night I would see 10-15 patients with gunshot wounds. It was very very busy” remembers Mark.

Since graduating from his surgery residency Mark has traded the lights and sirens for a more quiet, but no less challenging role at a community hospital in Pennsylvania performing keyhole and endoscopic surgeries.

Mark was back in Brisbane and on the Gold Coast this week, catching up with an old friend and colleague, LifeFlight Paramedic Brad Solomon at the Brisbane base where they had the chance to swap stories and show Mark around the Brisbane Airport base.

The new model AW139 helicopters that are now part of LifeFlight’s fleet are a far cry from the old 'Squirrels' Mark and Brad once worked together on but are symbolic of the lifetime of change both Mark and the organisation have gone through since he first took to the skies more than 30 years ago.

Looking back Mark knows his time working for the early version of Lifeflight was the catalyst for what has been a truly remarkable career. 

“I think what got me to in those days was the teamwork, the safety side of things and the high intensity, high adrenaline of working around the helicopters,” he said. 

“Every time we operate on someone who’s living or dying it’s stressful, but coming from a rescue background when we’re winching down into treetops in a very high intense moment, definitely builds personality and character.

“Careflight, now LifeFlight has founded my whole personality. I learnt so much out of it. I was a kid who wouldn’t go on a scary ride next thing you know you’re rappelling out of helicopters. It made me who I am and gave me a direction for my entire career path.”