Surgery by text message

For once, a positive story about text messaging is doing the rounds. A surgeon has instructed another to perform an amputation through the short message service (SMS – texting to you and me).

The details have the ingredients of a classic news story. Surprise for one (most stories about texting are negative eg blaming it for killing the English language). Then there is Death and destruction (the BBC reported that the surgeon who carried out the operation did it in ‘war-torn Congo’); and Heroism (he was working for Medecins sans Frontieres). And there’s the fact that the amputation (Drama) was to remove the arm of a 16-year-old boy (children are also usually very newsworthy).

Let’s be clear. This was undoubtedly a huge achievement, especially as the teenager recovered from the operation. It’s also remarkable that cheap technology can now be used to transmit written instructions into warzones.

But was it me, or did James Naughtie of the BBC’s flagship Today morning radio programme sound just a little disappointed when vascular surgeon Mr David Nott explained what really happened?

Mr Nott had needed to perform a four-quarter amputation on the boy, who’d already lost most of his arm. This was major surgery, which involved removing the collarbone and shoulder blade as well as what remained of the arm itself.

But the reason for needing the instructions was not that he’d never performed an amputation before. Rather, it was that there was only one specialist in the whole of the UK who specialised in four-quarter amputation: Professor Meirion Thomas of London’s Royal Marsden Hospital, a former colleague of Mr Nott.

Mr Nott did not perform the operation with a scalpel in one hand and his mobile phone in the other, as you might infer from press reports. Instead, he’d calmly emailed Professor Thomas the night before the operation, explaining the situation and checking with his former mentor that the procedure was appropriate. When he got confirmation that it was, a couple more texts followed to check the details.

He then slept on the decision and confirmed that he would go ahead when he awoke the next morning.

Nor was Professor Thomas on holiday in the Azores, as the BBC and several newspapers said; he was in London. (Naughtie muttered something along the lines of, ‘Oh, well we got that from the papers’.)

There are two lessons to take from this. First, it will help you get news coverage for your organisation if you make sure your press release contains as many core news values as possible. Second, most news you read or hear reported is far from objective. The BBC was still reporting nine hours later that the boy was from ‘war-torn Congo’. This was despite the fact that, according to Mr Nott, his injury had nothing to do with the war: the boy’s arm was bitten off by a hippo.

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