Going for the doctor

FLYING DOCTOR: Dr Glenn Singleman during a wingsuit dive.
FLYING DOCTOR: Dr Glenn Singleman during a wingsuit dive.

Dr Glenn Singleman is as comfortable jumping out of a plane as hovering over a patient's medical chart. Ahead of his visit to New Zealand, the adventuring doctor speaks to Ben Heather about conquering fear and ice-pick wounds.

If you want to get scared, forget extreme sports, think cheeseburgers.

Glenn Singleman says, over the long run, the fast food treat is far more likely to kill you than scaling Everest or jumping out of a plane.

PUSHING THE LIMITS: Dr Glenn Singleman.
PUSHING THE LIMITS: Dr Glenn Singleman.

"Extreme sport creates risk, but most of it is in your face and obvious, it can be managed," he says.

"A lot of the risks of heart disease are almost invisible. It doesn't seem to matter much if you eat one more cheeseburger, but when you look at a lifetime of cheeseburgers it becomes obvious."

Dr Singleman should know. The 55-year-old Australian has treated countless people at the Sydney Adventist Hospital's emergency department who are facing an early death after a sedentary life of unhealthy food.

On the flipside, he has also scaled Mt Everest, jumped off cliffs and put himself in the scariest circumstances possible at every possible opportunity.

Next weekend he is in Wellington, speaking at a GPs' conference on managing fear and separating the scary from the risky when saving lives.

What frightens us is often a poor guide to what is dangerous, he says. That panic that grips the brain is a primitive instinct with only three options: flight, fight or freeze. It is useful for an extra burst of speed for escaping a hungry lion, but less so when assessing risks in modern life.

Too much fear is bad for our health too, leading to stress, high blood and cholesterol. "Chronic activation of the fear system is quite toxic," he says.

At first glance, his advice on fear seems out of kilter with his own lifestyle. Dr Singleman is a self-confessed thrill-junkie and one of the world's few, possibly only, adventuring doctors.

"We know there is a thrill- seeking gene. I've had genetic tests done, and I've got it."

When not working at the hospital, he has broken records for performing feats most people would consider terrifying. In 1992, he and Nic Feteris base-jumped off a 5880-metre ledge in the Himalayas in Pakistan, breaking the record for the highest jump at the time.

Fourteen years later, he broke his own record with wife Heather Swan, jumping off a 6604m cliff in India in wingsuits.

He has scaled mountains from Antarctica to the Andes, and plunged into the depths to help with filming and medical support during Hollywood director James Cameron's deep-sea adventures.

"We had two life support systems, fire retardation, hydration and nutritional system, everything.

"I didn't want to be responsible for not saving the life of a big Hollywood director. That wouldn't have looked good on my CV."

While adventuring, he has removed an ice pick from a climber's leg, stitched up a broken head on the side of a remote Indian road, and treated countless people for malaria and altitude sickness hours from the nearest medical backup.

Rather than scaring himself silly, Dr Singleman says his adventures have made him less scared, building up a resistance to fear as he developed skills for managing risky situations.

He started young with canyoning, before graduating to rock climbing and eventually throwing himself out of plane above Sydney Harbour in a bright red winged suit.

The adventuring lifestyle also keeps him fit and healthy, lessening the far more likely risk of heart attack or stroke.

Somewhere along the way, his love for adventure has also mixed with his medical career. Treating people in extreme scenarios and taking that knowledge of managing risk back to hospital wards has become a speciality.

"I think there are parallels around managing risk in adventure and in medicine. In a hospital it's about managing someone else's risk; in adventure it's about managing your own."

If it all sounds a little beyond the reach, Dr Singleman, who perhaps unsurprisingly is a regular on the motivational speaking circuit, is at pains to stress it isn't.

His wife was not particularly adventurous when they met and had certainly never jumped out of a plane. But when she decided she was going to beat her husband's base-jumping record, she started building her skills over six years and then did it in one leap.

"Just ask yourself, what could you do if you weren't afraid."

Dr Singleman will speak in Wellington next weekend at an Acurity GPs' conference.

The Dominion Post