200 missions and counting for north's new air ambulance service

With the north's long-awaited air ambulance having just marked six months in operation, Gail Bell visited its operating base at the former Maze prison site and got a rare glimpse into what happens behind the scenes

Air ambulance pilot Richard Steele with paramedics Emma Boylan and Dr Aiden Cullen Picture: Mal McCann
Gail Bell

THEY have only been in the air for six months, but Northern Ireland's proud new Air Ambulance team had their helmets metaphorically fastened long before the action turned real.

For project co-ordinator Breige Mulholland, the launch of the sleek red helicopter into the skies above its operating base at the former Maze prison site last July was a day which caused her, literally, to stand still and take a long, deep breath.

"I was on holiday and standing in a shop in Culdaff, Co Donegal, when I got news that the helicopter had been tasked," she recalls. "At that point, I didn’t know where or what it was tasked to but I remember just filling up with emotion that this day had finally arrived."

In fact, the air ambulance story goes back almost 12 years to 2006 when the business plan for the development of a helicopter emergency medical service (HEMS) for Northern Ireland was first presented to the Department of Health.

And it has been quite a circuitous journey ever since, from when Fermanagh District Council first commissioned the plan – a second emergency helicopter is still based in the county – and trustees were appointed to Air Ambulance Service Northern Ireland (AANI), to the surge of support from 84,500 people who signed a petition following the death of popular motorcycling doctor and air ambulance campaigner Dr John Hinds from Co Armagh.

Air ambulance paramedic Emma Boylan from Armagh and pilot Richard Steele from Ballinderry at the AANI base at the former Maze prison site Picture: Mal McCann

"After that, we applied to the then chancellor, George Osborne, for seed funding – sourced from fines levied on banks for market-rigging – and this was successful on our second attempt," Breige explains. "Now we had the start-up funding, all we needed were the critical things: a helicopter and a hangar."

Babcock Mission Critical Services, a leading supplier of HEMS aircraft, was awarded the contract and the site outside Moira selected as a base. Now the serious mission of fundraising could begin, aligning Northern Ireland, at last, with other parts in the UK which already had a dedicated flying doctor service.

"The first donation was for £200 and we have been overwhelmed by public support ever since," says Breige. "There is still a misconception, though, that we are fully funded by the NHS, when we need to raise £2 million this year. Luckily, people across Northern Ireland have taken the service to their hearts, so we are confident we can meet this target."

Since the first, highly publicised call-out last July to airlift Co Down schoolboy Conor McMullan to hospital following a tractor accident, the service – which works in partnership with the ambulance service and health trusts, which provide the medical teams – AANI has undertaken more than 200 missions.

Air Ambulance operations lead Glenn O'Rorke plots a route Picture: Mal McCann

Operating with a team of six paramedics, 14 doctors and two pilots, there has rarely been a quiet day, with call-outs ranging from people falling off ladders to serious road accidents – one of the most traumatic was airlifting of 19-year-old Lesley-Ann McCarragher to hospital last April after she was knocked down while jogging close to her Co Armagh home.

The teenager died from her injuries, but despite their devastating loss, the McCarragher family remain ardent supporters of the air ambulance service, tirelessly raising funds and remaining in contact with those who came to help.

"It affects everyone when we see lives lost as well as those we save," says operational lead Glenn O'Rorke, a former ambulance service training officer and critical care paramedic.

"This service fills a huge gap that just wasn't there before, but, although we land on beaches, in back gardens and forest parks, it's not so much about access and rushing the patient to hospital, as it is about providing high-level, professional ER treatment at the roadside."

Dr Aidan Cullen, from north Belfast, admits it's not "a job for everybody" but, despite this, has enthusiastically embraced the airborne challenge.

"Doctors are used to a rather cosy environment, by comparison, in hospital," says the consultant anaesthetist who was "picked out" for extra, specialist training by the late Dr Hinds, "who wouldn't take 'no' for an answer".

"We train with mannequins at the base and it is uncanny how many imagined scenarios actually turn into reality. The helicopter is loaded up with drugs and equipment including defibrillator, ventilator, oxygen, suction unit and burns kit, so we are able to deliver life-saving interventions which can stabilise a patient until they get to hospital."

Paramedic Mike Patton deals with a call on the air desk Picture: Mal McCann

That task is made a little more difficult by notable absence of a helipad at Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital, meaning pilots have to land at nearby Musgrave and transfer patients by road. The team is hopeful, though, that a landing facility will be in place at the Royal by early summer.

But, wherever the landing, it is the weather which dictates whether the helicopter can take off in the first place and, for pilot Rich Steele from Ballinderry, on the Derry-Tyrone border, his first focus is on what is happening outside the cockpit.

"Making decisions based on the weather is for everyone's safety, so we'll look at certain restrictions like snow, low cloud, that sort of thing," says Rich, who shares flying duties with Dubliner Dave O'Toole.

"It is a steep learning curve, coping with what you see while out on missions, but the job satisfaction is amazing – we are literally saving lives and not every pilot can say that."

At the front line are the paramedics, including Stuart Stevenson from Portadown and Emma Boylan from Armagh.

"You go on to auto-pilot and focus on what needs to be done," says Emma, "but we are all human at the end of the day and it is hard if you are the last person to hold the hand of a patient who is losing the fight for life, despite everyone's best efforts. You see people at their most vulnerable."

Stuart has been with the ambulance service for 20 years and is also a member of the Motorcycle Union of Ireland medical team, attending crash scenes all over Ireland.

"It is a privilege to be part of this team and to see the service expand from what was an empty portacabin,” he says. "We are paramedics on the ground and technical crew members in the air, which means we read maps and are involved in navigation, as well as helping pick out the landing sites.

"There have been a few bumpy rides so far, but you don’t think about the danger. We aren't doing night flying right now, but if that happens in the future, we will have a 24/7 response service.

"The air ambulance service in Northern Ireland is a good news story within the health service – and we need a few more of those."­

:: A new fundraising initiative, Club AANI has recently been launched; for details check

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