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Alex McDonald, 5th year University of Otago, Christchurch, medical student, founded Tactical Medicine New Zealand, (TMNZ), the group hosting a two-day first responders’ conference.

Ōtautahi has suffered more than its share of crises and natural disasters in recent years, from quakes to floods to terror attacks – some would therefore argue it’s the obvious venue to stage a medical conference focussed on preserving life in chaotic, life-threatening situations.

It’s called Critical Resuscitation in Chaos (CriC24), a two-day conference this weekend (4-5 May) at the Christchurch Town Hall, bringing together first responders and those at the cutting edge of major emergency health incidents, providing education on tactical, clinical, and cognitive skills to enhance their ability to perform life-saving interventions in dynamic, high-risk situations.

It’s hosted by Tactical Medicine New Zealand, (TMNZ), a group founded by 5th year University of Otago, Christchurch, medical student Alex McDonald, a Major in the Royal New Zealand Army Medical Corps and former Hato Hone St John Ambulance officer. TMNZ, established in 2020, is an independent charity which supports individuals and organisations to help develop their capability to access, treat, and evacuate casualties in high-threat environments.

Thirty-seven-year-old Alex, who was raised in Christchurch, has had an interesting and well-travelled path to medical school.

After a short stint studying jazz at Ara in Christchurch upon leaving school, Alex enlisted in the army as an officer and was eventually sent to Timor Leste for his first operational deployment as a Platoon Commander. While there he undertook a combat lifesaver course (advanced military first aid) which reignited a long-held dream to pursue a career in the medical field.

He transferred to the Royal New Zealand Army Medical Corps half-way through his military career, volunteering for St John Ambulance while still in the army, completing a Bachelor of Health Science in Paramedicine by distance.

With a desire to do more for the patients he was seeing, Alex transitioned to the Army Reserves, where he is still active. He applied for and was accepted for medical school and headed to Dunedin in 2020.

“I had the benefit of leading and working in different health systems, which gave me great insight into how system-level decisions can impact care,” he says.

He concedes that balancing a family (he has two children with a third on the way), the demands of medical school, plus running a charity is challenging.

“Through the support of my wife, good self-discipline, and incorporating the organisational leadership and management skills I gained in the military, I am balancing it all so far,” he says.

Alex has a clear goal for TMNZ – to develop a standardised tactical medicine capability for Aotearoa New Zealand.

“New Zealand is no stranger to significant events that present an ongoing threat to members of the public as well as the first responders that come to their aid, with the first few moments of an unexpected disaster crucial for survival,” he says.

“We want to set the foundation for a national approach to tactical medical care to mitigate these threats and risks.”

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Through Tactical Medicine New Zealand (TMNZ), Alex hopes to develop a standardised tactical medicine capability for Aotearoa New Zealand.

He says they can be anything from a natural disaster to a terrorist or rogue shooter.

"We consider threats to be anything that could potentially cause harm to the responder or their patient, be it earthquakes, landslides, tsunamis, or violent crime – it’s quite a broad category,” Alex says.

This year’s third CriC24 conference has a fascinating lineup of topics and speakers, including a Zoom presentation from a doctor currently serving on the front line in the Ukrainian military.

Recently retired US Special Forces Medical Sergeant Paul Loos will share his experiences from 20 years of deployments to the Middle East and Africa, where he was responsible for the development and implementation of several advanced medical courses and Special Operations medical groups.

The main session will reflect on five years of change since the 2018 Christchurch terror attacks. Attendees will hear about the role of the coroner post the attacks, from ambulance first responders and police at the scene, and from survivor Temel Ataçocuğu, who bravely survived nine bullets in the attack on the Al-Nour mosque that day. Despite numerous surgeries in the years since, Ataçocuğu has been left with ongoing disability and severe PTSD.

Day two will explore prolonged casualty care, damage control and battlefield surgery and feature keynote speaker Dr Hnat Herych, a Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeon from Ukraine who will share his experience treating wounded soldiers and civilians at Lviv Emergency Hospital, where he is Chief of Surgery.

TMNZ will also carry out a book launch at the conference for the third publication of The Guerilla Surgeon, by Dr Lyndsay Rogers (originally published in 1958), a New Zealand-born, University of Otago trained doctor who served with the Royal Army Medical Corps in the North African Desert, before volunteering to serve with the Special Operations Executive – the precursor to today’s MI6 and CIA.

Dr Rogers was parachuted into Yugoslavia where he spent the remainder of World War 2 supporting the partisans in their fight against Nazi Germany. As the sole surgeon on hand, Rogers established hospitals in caves and under parachute canopies to care for the wounded in the Yugoslav mountains.

“It is a fascinating story of grit, purpose and making do with very little, and we wanted to share this story as a testament to a New Zealander punching above his weight to achieve in his area of expertise,” Alex says.

“The lessons Rogers identified in his story are still valid today, with many in the emergency planning and military fields able to learn from his experience.”

Alex says he is interested in pursuing a career in acute and critical care medicine and hopes to train in Emergency Medicine once he graduates.

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