Charity saving lives from the skies - The Thames and Chiltern Air Ambulance

Charity saving lives from the skies - The Thames and Chiltern Air Ambulance

Simon Meechan

Charity saving lives from the skies -  The Thames and Chiltern Air Ambulance

This year the Thames and Chiltern Air Ambulance flew its 15,000th mission. With the helicopter twice landing in Kidwells Park  to attend major incidents in May, reporter Simon Meechan visited its base to meet some of the people the people who fly the life-saving missions.

Tucked away in the corner of the mammoth RAF Benson airbase in Oxfordshire is a helicopter which one day could save your life.

Unlike the three emergency services, the Thames and Chiltern Air Ambulance is a charity - it receives no public funding and completely relies on donations.

The crew work 12 hour shifts, four days on, four days off each week. While at least two paramedics are based at RAF Benson, one will be on duty in the 999 control room.

Using their expert knowledge, the paramedics can screen 999 calls and decide when it is appropriate to dispatch the helicopter.

"With our knowledge and listening in, we can make a call," explained Kevin Letchford, an experienced paramedic who swapped the roads for the skies four years ago.

Both 36-year-old Kevin and his colleague Tracey Alden moved to the air ambulance four years ago.

Tracey said the attraction was to be able to do something different and gain extra skills.

"I've always wanted to do this," said the 35-year-old.

"It's a lot more demanding."

On board the paramedics can run ultra-sounds, while the Thames Valley service is the first to provide blood gas analysis, which the crew can use to check for trauma.

Kevin added: "We look at those numbers. It guides us in our management of our patients. If you're massively bleeding from trauma there will be certain markers in your blood we can see."

Kevin explained that their 'bread and butter' is transporting patients to John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, as it is home to a major trauma unit, adding: "It's all about getting the patient to the right hospital."

Pilot Jes Charlton is the third member of the flying squad.

He said: "It's the top of the ladder for the paramedics. They've got to do fitness, clinical assessments, interviews. It's pretty hard stuff, a lot of people don't make it. They've done a lot of years to get into this."

Jes, a 59-year-old former RAF pilot, has to retire this year as 60-year-olds are not allowed to fly solo.

But he has been so inspired by his colleagues that, rather than putting his feet up, he is planning to train as a paramedic.

Jes served with the RAF for 35 years, and says his current job presents different challenges to flying for the armed forces.

He said: "There's a lot more freedom with this. There's very little planning. Once we get the off we go out and fly to it. It's just more immediate.

"Landing sites can be challenging, you can get into trouble for landing in certain places. "There are some obvious places - schools at weekends as long as they're not locked up, all the big parks are idea. On the road is the last resort. It's about risk versus need."

Jes added that if the patient is in 'grave danger’ he will perform tight descents.

Twice in May the air ambulance landed in Kidwells Park, Maidenhead, to attend life-threatening situations.

On Tuesday, May 13, construction worker Benjamin Wylie was seriously injured on the Premier Inn construction site in West Street. But paramedics were unable to save the 24-year-old and he died at the scene.

Two weeks later a man fell from the Hines Meadow car park, with both with the Thames and Chiltern Air Ambulance and Hampshire and Isle of Wight Air Ambulance flying in.

The Thames Valley Team then airlifted the man to St George's Hospital in London.

Jes, who has flown with the air ambulance for six years, said: "We flew the patient to St Georges.

"We wanted to go to John Radcliffe Hospital but the weather was bad and the weather towards London was better. We knew we could get the patient there instead."

Sadly the man, 40-year-old Owen Fulton, died from his injuries.

Funding this team is no easy task. Each mission costs approximately £2,500.

It is called out two or three times most days and often four times on weekends when people indulge in riskier hobbies.

As of the end of June the service had flown a  total of 15,364 missions, with 93 in June alone.

Despite its charitable status the yellow and red ambulance in the sky is never off duty.

Kevin summed it up perfectly, saying: "We're online everyday. Christmas, New Year, my birthday, my daughter's birthday. Everything. We are always online."

And true to form, our meeting was cut short as the crew were called out to a job. Within a minute they were in the air and off to try and save another life.

The air ambulance team provided vital treatment for Damen Barnard after he was gravely injured in a crash on the M4. The 21-year-old motorcyclist was travelling from St Mark's to Chertsey in Surrey. Here is his account of what happened.

"On June 3, 2013 at 8.30am I set off to make my way to work via the M4 motorway on my motorbike.

It was an extremely hot day but fortunately I had been wearing all my leathers despite the heat, and of course my helmet.

The traffic was only travelling at about 10mph but I was filtering through all of the traffic.

I saw a gap open in the middle lane so I moved from in between the first and second lane to the second lane, where a car from the third lane also moved into the second lane.

The driver didn't see me and hit into the side of me which sent me flying into the car in front, where I then ricocheted off of a third car.

Loads of members of the public got out of their cars to help but fortunately for me an off-duty paramedic from Wexham Park Hospital who was on his travels at the time also got out of his car, performed first aid on me and carefully removed my helmet.

He contacted 999 and requested an air ambulance with an anaesthetist on board to get to the scene.

Two air ambulances arrived carrying the requested people on board, where I was anaesthetised immediately, then the members from the hospital performed part of my leg operation at the scene.

The M4 was closed for five hours after the accident.

I was taken to the John Radcliffe Hospital where I was put on life support for two days and put into a coma to stop my brain from swelling more. My injuries were: Frontal petechial haemorrhage with diffuse axial injury, tibial and fibula fracture, and ulnar fracture.

I had an operation on my leg where they pinned my tibia, performed a muscle replacement from my right leg and also gave me a skin graft. Before the operations, my family had been told that if I survived, I would lose my left leg.

After all the operations were successful, my family and I were told that what saved my leg was the crucial work that was done on it by the air ambulance team and surgeons on the motorway, so for that I am incredibly thankful to the ambulance service.

If I was transported to hospital by a land ambulance, it would have been too late. Thank you all so much."


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