A prescription for a fulfilling career

Published: 27 Mar 2017

Dr Glenn Staples started out working at Johannesburg Hospital before moving into the air ambulance arena. He is now the medical director with provider Awesome Air Evac, treating ill people across Africa.

How did you get started?

I knew early on that I wanted to be part of the emergency medical services and air ambulance fields. This dream came true in 1997 when, as a medical officer in the trauma unit at Johannesburg Hospital, I joined the Flight for Life HEMS operation on Echo 1. Later that same year I began flying fixed-wing air ambulance missions with International SOS out of Lanseria airport near Johannesburg.

Where were you trained?

I did my undergraduate medical training through the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, finishing in 1995. I also did three years of registrar time specialising in anaesthetics through Wits University. I have subsequently completed an MBA through the Gordon Institute of Business Science.

What path has your career taken?

My first seven years post-qualification were spent at Johannesburg Hospital (with some rotations to the other Johannesburg teaching hospitals). This time included internship, surgical senior house officer, trauma unit medical officer, and anaesthetics registrar positions. Thereafter I took up the position of medical director of Netcare 911, a private national emergency medical service in South Africa. During this time I developed and managed the aeromedical division, which included four fixed-wing and three HEMS air ambulances, and five surf rescue helicopters. I was with Netcare for five years. After leaving that firm in 2008, I set up my own company with a partner, and since then have become a health entrepreneur with a panAfrican focus.

But you are still involved with medical evacuation operations?

Awesome Air Evac is a fixedwing air ambulance service. My role as medical director includes responsibility for all clinical and quality aspects of the service, but also extends to marketing, client relationship management, and general business development. I also fly on the service as one of the flight doctors.

Any interesting stories to share?

I will never forget a fixed-wing evacuation flight to Port Harcourt in Nigeria in my early flying days. We were flying in a small Bombardier Learjet 25 and our weather radar malfunctioned on the second leg from Luanda to Port Harcourt. This left us having to approach Port Harcourt into a massive Friday evening thunderstorm largely blind. We then headed for our alternate airport, only to be informed that they were experiencing a power failure, and had no runway lights. Fortunately a local Boeing 727 pilot had been monitoring our radio communications and radioed our pilots to suggest a small local airport in Enugu. We soon discovered that we were stuck in a small town in Nigeria with no immigration and no Jet A1 fuel on a Friday evening. The earliest we could get a fuel truck was going to be Tuesday the following week. The next morning our technical team in Johannesburg cleared us to use paraffin. We borrowed a 44-gallon drum from the airport, bought all the paraffin we could find in Enugu, and spent a couple of hours siphoning into each of the wing-tip tanks. We then flew low-level back to Port Harcourt, picked up our patient and had a relatively uneventful flight back to Johannesburg.

What’s the best part of your job?

There are three things which I love most about this job. The teamwork you experience as the two pilots and two medical crew taking on a host of unknowns to achieve the mission objective. The ability to see the most remote parts of Africa, a continent with which I am in love. The pure appreciation and relief on the faces of the patients and family when you rescue them from a disastrous situation and deliver them safely to a topclass hospital.

What’s the most challenging aspect?

Dealing with a host of unknowns or incorrect information on each mission – whether it’s flight clearances, local airports, local hospitals or completely incorrect patient information. 

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