Privately funded and able to ferry patients from rural locations to hospital, fast, the air ambulance is a vital lifeline for the countryside, as Nick Hammond discovers.
The helicopter lands in a swirl of dust and deafening noise and, looking like a scene straight out of Top Gun, its four passengers climb out and stride across the runway, their helmets tucked casually under an arm. But this is real life, not fiction: it’s Thursday lunchtime and they’ve just saved someone’s life.
‘You don’t have to go to Baghdad or Kabul to see trauma,’ says pilot Dave Webber, as he puts down his helmet and flicks the switch on the kettle. ‘It’s right here on our roads and streets every day.’ Dave should know. He served for years as an RAF officer on foreign soil, but now he flies lifesaving missions across the skies of southern England for the Thames Valley & Chiltern Air Ambulance (TVACAA).
Like Prince William, who will join the East Anglian Air Ambulance service as a pilot next spring, Dave is responsible for getting an emergency medical team to unlucky patients fast. And then crucially, in terms of their life expectancy transporting them just as fast to specialist treatment in hospital.
An hour or so ago, Dave was negotiating a tricky landing deep in the Buckinghamshire countryside, where a morning walker had collapsed. The helicopter’s medical team of Dr Marietjie Slabbert, paramedic team leader Neil Plant and trainee consultant practitioner Mathew Holbrook reached the spot and quickly began working on the suspected heart-attack victim. They got his heart beating again, lifted him into the helicopter and whisked him away in a whirr of rotorblades to Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital, where staff were primed and ready for his arrival.
Now, the team are safely back on base at RAF Benson, filing reports, restocking their drug supplies and making a considerable dent in a large Victoria sponge cake. ‘I love this work. It’s the frontline of emergency lifesaving, really,’ Dr Slabbert (or MJ, as everyone calls her) explains in a broad South African accent. Her orange flight suit is alive with hooks, wires and gadgets; a roll of surgical tape attached here, scissors on a retractable cord clipped there.
The rest of the team gently rib her about her ‘Inspector Gadget’ outfit, but they know that every second saved could be crucial in the field.
‘We carry more equipment than most ambulances,’ says Neil the paramedic, as Mathew restocks a flight case with various ampoules and bottles. ‘We can anaesthetise a patient ready for surgery plus we have a fully qualified doctor on board, as well as paramedics. We sometimes arrive before the other emergency services, so it’s challenging as well as rewarding.’
In their cramped portable building next to the air-base runway, there’s a lounge complete with the obligatory computers, a map of the three-county area the service covers, a TV that’s dusty with disuse in one corner and a headache-inducing array of checklists, procedures and rotas plastered across the walls. There’s also a bath-room next door and, somewhat comically, a Thames Valley & Chiltern collection box on the cistern of the loo. ‘Every little helps,’ MJ laughs.
When not airborne, the TVACAA team is kept busy with checks, reports and studying, but when the ‘Batphone’ rings and it really is a bright-red, old-fashioned, dial-up handset—it’s action stations. The crew grab their gear, Dave works out where they’re going and where might be suitable for safe landing and, within five minutes, the team is airborne. ‘We can be anywhere in three counties within 15 minutes,’ Dave confirms.
Each time the helicopter takes off, it costs about £2,500 and there are, on average, three missions a day. The service currently runs 12 hours a day, but, next year, when the next-generation helicopter comes into service, night flying will be possible for the first time. Incredibly, the TVACAA is almost entirely self-funded, receiving no money from either the Government or the National Lottery. How on earth can it keep going?
‘We rely on the goodwill of the public,’ says Neil, simply, ‘and, thankfully, there’s an awful lot of goodwill for the air ambulance out there. Often, when we’ve done a job, the patients involved remember how much it meant to them and start to fundraise on our behalf. We get visits and letters from dozens of people we’ve been able to help.’
People like Vanessa Whiteley. She was playing in a polo match in Oxfordshire when her horse tripped and fell, rolling on her and kicking her in the chest and head. Knocked unconscious and suffering potentially life-threatening injuries, Vanessa was in the hands of the crew within a quarter of an hour. ‘A chest drain was put in my side and a brace fixed around my head and neck,’ she recalls. ‘My mother was allowed to travel with me in the helicopter and we arrived at the John Radcliffe extremely quickly for an emergency procedure that saved my life.’
It’s been a long road to recovery for Vanessa, but she was back on a horse shortly after leaving hospital. Both she and her mother recently visited the TVACAA team at RAF Benson. ‘It was a surreal experience for me and a very emotional one for my mother, but I was so happy to put names and faces to the tremendously brave and important people involved in the trust,’ she adds. ‘I wanted to thank them all so much for saving me and, most importantly, giving my mother someone to trust and look up to during this horrible day for her.’
It’s all in a day’s work for the crew. Whether it’s pouring with rain, snowing or blowing a gale, getting on the ground in the heart of an emergency is completely different to trauma management in an accident-and-emergency unit. ‘It’s incredibly exciting,’ says Mathew as he shows me the helicopter’s cramped interior, which is stuffed with apparatus, supplies and electronic equipment. ‘You can feel the adrenaline pumping as you circle over the scene and you need to work very closely as a team there’s no room for ego or error. It’s the ultimate in domestic frontline medicine.’
Of course, there are significant stresses, but everyone has fun, too. At the tail-end of this squally day in Oxfordshire, the skies darken overhead and the chopper is wheeled back into its hangar. The team finishes its shift and waves goodbye. They’ll all head home in the knowledge they’ve saved another life. Just another day at the office.
For more information, telephone 0300 999 0135 or visit http://tvacaa.org