The Royal Society

Exhibiting the science of trauma surgery: sharp knives and spilt blood

Posted by on 8 June 2011

Posted by Trauma surgery: the science of the bleeding obvious – Dr Daniel Frith, The Royal London Hospital

Interacting with the public should come naturally to us trauma surgeons. Every day we come into contact with the unlucky victims of a road traffic accident or somebody on the receiving end of a sharp knife. We carefully explain the benefits of stopping the torrential bleeding from their wounds before rapidly transferring them to the operating theatre. We might offer a blood transfusion so that they do not bleed to death before the taps are turned off. Our patients usually listen very carefully to us before considering their options. Few refuse, why would they? 

But it is a little bit harder to capture someone’s interest when they’re not bleeding to death. How do you explain that your research is helping contribute to a decline in deaths from traumatic injury when you can’t show them the blood? Smart graphs and statistical analysis, the tools of scientific communication, can’t describe how blood fails to clot normally in victims of injury.

Putting together a public exhibit about the science of trauma surgery has been an enlightening process for the team of doctors, nurses, physiotherapists and scientists working in The Royal London Hospital Trauma Service. We began with grand ideas of technological wizardry and virtual images. We figured that we saved lives using cutting edge science and that a similar approach should be used to demonstrate this to the public. Graphic designers were called in and public relations experts were consulted. We were offered mind-blowing ideas and cost estimates to match them. But something wasn’t quite right. We could not justify spending valuable financial resources on external help when it was desperately needed for our research projects. Could we show what we do without the titanium frame and the flashy lighting displays?

We paused and thought harder. Everything went back to basics. Instead of asking ourselves ‘What would look good?’ we thought about what would be fun and still convey our important messages. Temporary professional scaffolds were replaced with pop-up structures that could be used for future exhibits. Instead of commissioning a custom made model of a blood clot we modified a commercially available game of ‘kerplunk!’ to demonstrate how normal clotting fails in trauma victims and why this causes more blood loss.

Saving the life of a seriously injured trauma victim requires the coordinated skills of a large team of healthcare professionals. From the ambulance driver who picks up the patient from the wreckage to the trauma surgeon who puts him back together through to the physiotherapist who gets him walking again. We attempted to recreate this productive synergism in the approach to our exhibit. I won’t pretend we always agreed. Faces were pulled and voices were sometimes raised. But that was only because everyone wanted the best outcome. Our exhibit is innovative, inspiring and fun. We are looking forward to spending time showing how trauma science is benefiting the victims of injury.