The Dennis Brothers

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Name: Robert Dennis – colorectal surgeon

Event: Jersey to Carteret Row for Lifeboxes for Rio 

Date: July 2015

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We’ve seen some daring escapades in the name of Lifeboxes for Rio, but with their plans for next month, it looks like Robert and Simon Dennis are pulling ahead.

The brothers – one surgeon and one (Olympian!) teacher – will be rowing from Jersey to France, across open water, in a boat most of us would probably capsize on dry land.

We caught up with Robert, a colorectal surgeon at Peterborough and Stamford Hospitals, to find out more.

How much training is this going to involve?

It’s fairly steady – I train a couple of times a week anyway at Peterborough Rowing Club. I’ve not done an awful lot of sea rowing, but on the back of having rowed through university I’ve stayed fairly fit.

How big are the waves, out on the open water? 

A metre or two – perfectly safe for coastal rowing! Although if the weather is shocking, it’s not safe and some years the event has had to be a race just along the coast.

This doesn’t sound like ‘messing about on the river’…

It’s a pretty big event, and there will be some fairly serious coastal rowers who will no doubt show us inland rowers how it is done on the high seas. You need to have some idea of what you’re doing.  You need to be experienced in either river or costal rowing.

You and Simon rowed together at Imperial College when you were at university.  Are you looking forward to getting back on the water together?

Well he does a lot of kayaking nowadays, but it’s a bit like riding a bike – once you’ve acquired the skills, it’s not difficult to jump in for a day together.

Simon rowed for Great Britain in the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney – what was it like to watch?

Rowing at that level is a very different world. Training 365 days a year, for four years – for two incredible weeks if it goes well.

It’s an interesting experience as a family actually.  Because the athletes are quarantined before the event – they disappear off together on small training camps in preparation – which means they exchange all the small infections and viruses during the course of the summer.

So when we got to Sydney for the regatta we could chat over the fence, but you can’t touch each other.  You don’t train for all those years just to get a viral infection just before the race!

And we all know the result was…

He won – which was great!

Why did you decide to take on this challenge?

Richard Griffiths, an anaesthetist here in Peterborough (and one of the brains behind the AAGBI’s successful cycles and shirts for Lifebox) mentioned the work Lifebox does, and the AAGBI’s Lifeboxes for Rio campaign. He pointed out the natural connection with Simon as an Olympic athlete – it just seemed like a logical thing to do, really.

What is it about Lifeboxes for Rio that appeals to you?

I think it’s one of those charitable drives that is a simple thing to do, but genuinely able to make a big difference to a lot of people.

When the WHO Checklist was first published I remember reading that one of the steps was a pulse oximeter. And I said to someone, why on earth is that there – of course every general anaesthetic is administered with a pulse oximeter.

It came as a surprise – that yes, that’s the case in the U.K. – but not necessarily around the world as a routine level of care.

Do you find the Checklist helps in your day-to-day work?

I’m a passionate believer in the WHO Checklist – I just think modern healthcare is so complex that no one individual in theatre can know everything that’s going on with a patient.

You can’t see everything, you can’t know everything – so its important that you do have those moments when everybody stops.  Everybody has their moment to say ‘yes, we’re happy with that bit, yes we’re happy with that bit’.

And I think its also important for me in ORs I work with, that you try and dismiss as much hierarchy as you can – it’s more of a problem in medicine than a good thing.  That everyone feels valued and perfectly happy to put a hand up at any time and say actually, this isn’t right.  That’s a much safer way to deliver patient care than everyone looking at everyone else and thinking he (the surgeon) must know – and he doesn’t.