Fuelled by a fascination with the workings of the human body and a desire to help others, Hayley Letson was set on becoming a doctor. A serious car accident early in her studies changed those plans. Now she’s blazing a trail in her field and developing a treatment that could save the lives of people who suffer traumatic injuries.
By the time Hayley was just four years old, she already knew what the future held for her. The youngster had declared she was going to be a doctor and she was determined to fulfil her dream.
“Despite no one in my family being involved in the medical or scientific field, I discovered a love of science and a fascination with the workings of the human body from a very young age,” she says. “I was then fortunate to have some wonderful science teachers in high school, who encouraged me to pursue science.”
However, life had different plans for Hayley.
“I intended to become a doctor when I began my university studies, but very early on in my degree I suffered my own traumatic injury in the form of a serious car accident that altered the course of my life and took me a number of years to recover from,” she says. “It was at that time when I was easing my way back into full-time study that I spent some time in the lab and fell in love with the process — the challenge, the problem solving, and the realisation that I could potentially help more people through research.”
Hayley’s work with Professor Geoffrey Dobson at JCU’s College of Medicine and Dentistry Heart, Trauma and Sepsis Laboratory has garnered the pair worldwide recognition and earned Hayley the Young Investigator Award for three consecutive years at the American Heart Association’s Resuscitation Science Symposium.
Hayley and Geoff have developed a small-volume solution called ALM, named after its three components: adenosine, lidocaine, and magnesium. The solution is for resuscitation of patients suffering traumatic injury and major blood loss, and acts like a ‘pharmacological tourniquet’ to reduce bleeding, while also protecting the brain and other organs and ensuring sufficient oxygen supply.
“It is designed to be administered on the battlefield or in the pre-hospital environment, since up to 50 per cent of trauma deaths happen before a patient reaches definitive medical care such as a hospital,” Hayley says. “The ALM fluid also reduces inflammation, which may prevent development of multiple organ failure — which is a large contributor to ‘late’ mortality in trauma patients after they reach hospital.”
Away from the battlefield and closer to home, ALM could save lives in Australia’s outback. Hayley says rural and remote medicine and battlefield medicine share similar challenges including limited resources, austere environments, and delayed evacuations. ALM could be used in a range of situations including farm accidents, car accidents, shark attacks, mass casualty situations such as terror attacks or natural disasters, and obstetric haemorrhage.
“One of the most exciting and important civilian applications will be in rural and remote medicine, which is particularly important in Australia, where 30 per cent of the population live in rural and remote areas,” Hayley says. “The sad reality is that people in rural and remote regions are 50 per cent more likely to die from traumatic injury than those in metropolitan areas.”
Hayley is often too busy to consider the huge impact her research could have on people across the globe. The busy nature of lab work, which involves everything from small animal surgery to analysing samples and interpreting data, means she rarely has time to sit back and contemplate how her work could one day be the reason someone survives a traumatic injury.
“Although to many people it might not seem like a normal job, to me it is just that — my job,” she says. “I have a job to do and I work really hard to do a good job. Every now and then, though, I am reminded of why I do what I do.”
She was reminded when Paul Warren from the Mates4Mates charity recently visited the lab. Paul was serving in Afghanistan when he was injured and lost a leg. Hayley says Paul went on to use that experience in the most incredible way – working for Mates4Mates, captaining the Australian team for the Invictus Games, writing a book, and making invaluable contributions to his community.
“He recounted his story to me and through his descriptions he took me to that moment in his life when the blast occurred,” Hayley says. “He was fortunate that he received medical care that enabled him to survive but he also lost mates.”
While Hayley insists her work is just a job, her fiery passion to achieve her goals comes from the heart and shows a dedication many people would find difficult to match. Hayley hopes that one day ALM syringes will be in every soldier’s backpack, every ambulance, LifeFlight and rescue helicopter, in first aid kits on rural and remote stations, and used in veterinary hospitals.
“The thing about traumatic injury is that it disproportionately affects young people and the ripple effect is huge when someone dies way too young,” she says. “I have a lot of personal motivation having been both the patient myself, and spending six days in an intensive care unit as a family member when my beloved father passed away from a sudden brain haemorrhage. I was once told that I was too emotional — that people die every day and I should just get over it — but I can’t do that. While I have a brain and a heartbeat I will continue working to achieve that goal.”
Working in research has not come without its challenges. Hayley says being unable to secure funding from within Australia has been a source of disappointment.
“I have been fortunate to have support from the US military over the past five years, but that involves contract work and the lack of job security is a constant source of stress,” she says. “We are all fighting for a smaller and smaller pool of research funds in Australia and each grant rejection is certainly tough.”
Despite the difficulties, Hayley can’t imagine doing anything else. After completing a Bachelor of Science at JCU with a double major in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and Physiology and Pharmacology, she completed a PhD in the field of physiology. She is now the Senior Research Associate in the Heart, Trauma and Sepsis Research Laboratory.
“My work is a large part of my identity,” Hayley says. “I enjoy the whole process of having a problem to solve and the satisfaction of working towards the solution. I love learning new skills. Some of my favourite moments of the day are when it is just Professor Geoff Dobson and I chatting, working through results, coming up with theories, and formulating our next question.”
Hayley is hopeful she can have a long research career in Australia and continue to work in her field. Each day she lives by the words of her late father who always encouraged her to “be the best she can be”. For potential PhD students, Hayley’s advice is to find and pursue your passion.
“It will be your passion for your particular topic that will get you through the difficult times,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to make a mistake and don’t be afraid to try something new. In science nothing is a failure because we learn from each and every result.”
Keeping your eyes and mind open will also reap the best results.
“My mentor, Professor Geoff Dobson, has a saying, ‘what you least expect in science is often what you get’; so keep an open mind. And finally — observe, observe, observe. While we have a lot of technology and expensive instrumentation as scientists, in my opinion, the best scientists are those that dare to really look at what is happening around them.”
If you are looking for a challenge, love problem solving and are driven to make a difference, check out JCU’s College of Medicine and Dentistry.