UK professor braves 2,600 mile journey to bring medical supplies to Syrian border

Extreme medicine lecturer and expedition expert, Mark Hannaford on his recent journey to the Syrian border, bringing medical supplies to aid workers.

The war in Syria has now been raging for five years and is estimated to have claimed the lives of around half a million civilians. According to the United Nations, it is the ‘greatest humanitarian crisis of our era’, and a particular concern for the global humanitarian community is the apparent targeted attacks on hospitals and medical practitioners.

Across Syria, doctors and nurses are working to save lives using basic equipment, working in unsuitable locations such as caves, living rooms and storage rooms and working for days without rest. However, without access to medicine and equipment, the medical expertise and bravery of Syrian aid workers is not enough to treat the thousands injured and unwell.

With this in mind, Mark Hannaford, an honorary senior lecturer on the University of Exeter’s Extreme Medicine Masters course, and the founder of expedition planning company, Across the Divide, decided to get involved at the front lines. Until recently, he was the logistics and security team lead of a convoy taking paediatric medical supplies to Syrian aid workers.

“Dr Rola Hallam, founder of the NGO CanDo, was prompted by the destruction of the last children’s hospital in Aleppo, and wanted to use the skills and experience of the UK’s extreme medicine community to deliver a children’s hospital to Syria,” Hannaford explains, which is why he got on board Dr Hallam’s campaign, The People’s Convoy, as the logistics partner.

Hannaford’s team gathered and transported supplies for a children’s hospital in the back of a lorry, driving the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London to the Syrian border, where these medical supplies were handed to local partners. The convoy of heavy goods vehicles drove over 2,600 miles passing through France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, before crossing Turkey and reaching Turkey’s border with Syria.

As the founder of Across the Divide, Hannaford is no stranger to aid work. His company provides logistical support to expeditions and fundraising events, and World Extreme Medicine which trains doctors to work in austere environments, whether that be on expeditions to Everest or the poles, or in disaster response efforts across the globe. Across the Divide counts NASA, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and the Royal College of Surgeons as some of their many partners.

“In April 1997, I founded Across the Divide. We began with safety in mind and were the first company to introduce salaried medical staff on all of our international events. This is supported by rigorous risk assessments and comprehensive event safety procedures to ensure the wellbeing of the entire team. The corporate and community events we run help change the lives of individuals. We help plan and manage both UK and overseas events and expeditions,” says Hannaford.

Hannaford has run hundreds of events and have facilitated the raising of over £92 million for charitable and socially worthwhile causes, supported by his old school friend and entrepreneur David Weil. Over the next three years, he aims to grow that total to £100 million.

Across the Divide has provided medical support for CBS TV’s Survivor Series and helped Helen Skelton run and kayak for Comic Relief. “We’ve helped Ben Fogle and James Cracknell ride from Edinburgh to London. Even Sir David Attenborough has reached out for our expert support. We have helped the BBC’s Children in Need Rickshaw Challenge team to raise more than £14million over the past five years. We are working with them again this year and have planned and organise the Countryfile Rambles for Children in Need,” Hannaford explains.

“This love of travel began my journey towards World Extreme Medicine. I started working as an assistant field geologist in Australia, and after realising I had no strong passion for chemistry I moved to Operation Raleigh, which is now known as Raleigh International. As the project manager for the Tanami Desert Crossing in Northern Australia, I provided leadership for a group of international volunteers. We carried out scientific data collection during a study stretching from the Tanami Desert, across the Northern Territories and to the coastal shoreline of the Gulf of Carpentaria,” he adds.

Operation Drake was launched in 1978 by HRH Prince Charles and Colonel John Blashford-Snell and had scientific exploration and community service as its aims. “Raleigh International continues to inspire young people to change the world and I was certainly one of them. It was around this time I also organised my first properly sponsored fundraising event with support from McAlpine and Sainsbury’s. We took a group of keen cyclists and fundraising volunteers from London to Land’s End, then to John O’Groats and back to London,” says Hannaford.

“During expeditions, I feel that organisers have a moral obligation to supply medics and make reasonable provisions for worst case scenarios. In the 1980s, many doctors and medics working in the wilderness and on expeditions were volunteers and not provided the professional setup protect their professional liability. In some cases, they had received minimal training for tackling problems in extreme environments. This approach could have lacked cohesiveness and left medical professionals and expedition members exposed both medically and professionally.”

In 2002, Hannaford introduced World Extreme Medicine as a training provider of expedition, wilderness and remote medicine courses for medical professionals. It was around a campfire in Namibia where he coined the phrase ‘World Extreme Medicine’ as an umbrella term for all practices of medicine outside of a clinical environment, providing training for medics who want to work in remote environments including the Everest base camp.

With his experience in navigating across dangerous environments, Hannaford was confident about getting to the highly volatile Syrian border with The People’s Convoy. “We were hit by severe blizzards on the Turkish border, and it reminded us that many displaced Syrians are having to live in this extreme weather without housing or adequate medical care,” Hannaford says.

“Public support was absolutely remarkable. The campaign had targeted raising £90,000 and we’ve now raised £229,000, which we can use to fund further convoys. The government has its hands tied, but individuals working together can make a real difference on the ground in Syria.”

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for from 2016 to 2018.

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