With the launch of a new air ambulance service in Aberdeen from March, Michael Alexander spoke to existing teams from the American Charity Air Ambulance (SCAA) in Perth to learn more about their roles and the challenges of winter.
The desire to “do something exciting that was different from one day to the next” brought Matthew Allen, raised by Kirriemuir, to the world demanding pre-hospital emergency care.
Having studied dentistry at the University of Dundee for three years before deciding that it was not for me, the former student of Webster’s High School retrained as a paramedic at the Scottish Ambulance Service and served at the forefront of A&E for five years in Edinburgh and Dundee.
When the opportunity arose just over a year ago to join the Scottish Charity Air Ambulance team as a paramedic, however, the 29-year-old knew that it was a chance that he didn’t want to fly – and he was delighted to find a place with the SCAA paramedic.
Paramedic Matthew Matthew (left) and Darren O’Brien (center) with SCAA pilot
“It was the unpredictable and exciting nature of emergency work that drew me to the Scottish Ambulance Service,” said Matthew The Courier in an interview at SCAA headquarters at Perth airport.
“I had worked in Edinburgh as a paramedic for the ambulance service for about five years, then in Dundee for about a year before finding a job here. Regular paramedics tend to see everything, which is why the air ambulance recruits in the ambulance service because they know they will have this experience. “
After successfully completing the maintenance, Matthew had to successfully complete the helicopter underwater evacuation training (HUET) – teaching crew members how to deal with an emergency when the helicopter descends uncontrollably into the water.
But paramedics must also learn to assist the pilot from the front left seat of the aircraft.
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This involves successfully completing a course that covers everything from flight training to engineering and meteorology to navigation – crucially helping the pilot navigate to emergencies.
“Clinically, we are paramedics like highway paramedics,” said Matthew.
“But on top of that, we have to do a technical crew course so that we can help the pilot fly the plane and navigate and things like that.”
“Beyond what we do as paramedics, we help the pilot prepare the aircraft, maintain it to some extent, make sure it is airworthy and plan missions , navigate and go to incidents.
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When the crew and pilot enter service, the day begins with a briefing in the pilot’s office to discuss the weather throughout Scotland.
They watch the Notams warning to the system for any current event that may have an impact. For example, a laser show in Edinburgh or model planes flying in East Lothian. This gives them a head start if and when a call arrives in a certain area.
For paramedics who help the pilot navigate forward, however, the task of talking about different routes, reassessing the weather, finding a safe landing point and filtering out air traffic radio chatter, the room ambulance control and colleagues can all be consuming.
So, with the paramedics upstream potentially “at their maximum” by the time they arrive at work, it is the paramedic who sits in the back who tends to take the lead in the field to give their colleague a chance to recover and “back away” from what is likely to be a high trauma call.
Darren O’Brien, 42, a partner in Matthew’s Helimed 76, who understands the importance of teamwork, also joined paramedics after a career change.
After a year of working as a teacher who made him realize that he didn’t want to work with children, the graduate in history and English from Keele University in Milton Keynes worked for a bank and as a broker. securities before deciding around the age of 25 that he didn’t want to be trapped behind a desk.
Son of Aberdeenshire parents who moved south before he was born, he joined the South Central Ambulance Service and after five years moved north to Dunfermline before going on to training / education at the Scottish Ambulance Service for 10 years.
Disappointed with the managerial side of the job, however, he wanted to return to the front line and was delighted to be accepted as a paramedic in Perth over a year ago.
Paramedic Darren O’Brien aboard the Helimed 76
“With the air ambulance, the guy from the front left will spin a bit, so it’s important that we work as a team,” said Darren.
“Similarly, when we are on stage, the driver often does the same with us. We risk becoming very involved with the patient and wasting time – what happens in the sky over time.
“The driver could come and pat us on the shoulder and say” just to let you know we’ve been here for 20 minutes – we have to move. “That’s the dynamics of the team.
“We have to get along well because we spend a lot of time together in very intense environments and we have to work as a team.”
Planning and weather are factors for SCAA throughout the year.
But in winter, the weather and the type of emergency they respond to on the rugged and varied terrain of Scotland can pose challenges in itself.
“Winter adds a layer of difficulty for navigation due to the weather and the chunky chunks of granite,” said Darren.
“We will most likely have to stay under the cloud because if we go up and cross when it freezes the frost and we fall from the sky.
SCAA paramedics Wendy Jubb (left) and Julia Barnes pictured at work on Helimed 76.
“It makes navigation more difficult and being aware of the weather that is approaching you.
“Yes, we get less work in the winter. There are fewer people on motorcycles, etc. But minor injuries can be life threatening. If you hurt your ankle in the summer, you can sit for a long time waiting for an ambulance. If you get stuck on a hill in winter, your life could be in danger because of the elements rather than actual injuries. “
In winter, the kit for extreme weather conditions – paid for by the postal code lottery and worn by the SCAA – takes on its full meaning.
The kit includes a weather shelter that can be removed and used to house five or six people in extreme conditions. This generates heat and aims to quickly warm the patient.
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Another kit includes an Aerohawk sleeping bag, chemical heat bags to “cheer up” and a large blanket sleeping bag that can hold the whole body, but includes various special pockets allowing paramedics to access the patient without having to remove the cover.
Darren admits that work personally brought him to what was near his “physical and mental limit”.
He remembers an occasion in summer weather when they had to go up and down a steep hill with a kit to reach a patient who unfortunately could not be saved because of the extent of his injuries.
There are also days when, for security reasons, they cannot respond, usually due to weather conditions. While these scenarios are not taken lightly, they must be disciplined by recognizing that the team also has limits.
However, there are many occasions when work is incredibly rewarding and even when they are exhausted, and find these extra energy reserves to be exploited, they try to remember that the patient almost certainly has a worse day than they do. .
“In the end, the reason we are there is because there is no one else and we are the last chance that person has,” said Matthew thoughtfully.
“Go into someone’s house and give them their baby and trust you because of the uniform you’re wearing – it’s all a responsibility!
“Even in this situation where the gentleman did not survive, the effect we had on family and friends made a real difference.
SCAA paramedics Wendy Jubb (left) and Julia Barnes pictured at work on Helimed 76.
“Even in situations where we don’t get the desired result, people show appreciation, which is really nice. You feel like your efforts are rewarded.”
Matthew and Darren remembered another incident with a happy ending that saw them respond to a tourist who had fallen and broken his ankle on an isolated part of the West Highland Way.
“The weather was shocking,” recalls Darren.
“He threw it away with rain. We had trouble getting there due to the low cloud base. We had to land several times because we continued to sink – the ground was so full of water.
Paramedics Darren O ’Brien and Rich Garside are pictured leaving the helicopter
“Finally, we got into the guy who was soaked. We took out the Bothy tent, etc.
“Two hikers had already wrapped an aluminum foil blanket around him. They stayed to help us because of the terrain and the size of this guy.
“He was a former American medivac pilot for many years. He said, “When I left the military all these years ago, I vowed never to do one of those damn things in my life again!”
“But it could have gone the other way without anyone quickly hitting the ground.
“If you had deployed a ground ambulance, they would have had a 45-minute walk to reach him, even if they even knew exactly where he was.
Helimed 76 paramedics John Pritchard (left) and Craig MacDonald treat a patient
“It could have taken more than an hour to walk to him and then think about how to get him down. This is a great example of how the SCAA is making a real difference. “
A unique collaboration between the public, private and third sectors, the Scotland Charity Air Ambulance (SCAA) operates the first and only air ambulance helicopter service funded by charitable organizations, otherwise known as the area code Helimed 76 from its base at Perth Airport since May 2013.
During this period, he responded to more than 2,200 mostly high-end trauma emergencies, transporting patients in need of emergency care to hospitals across Scotland.
SCAA Helimed 76 helicopter, left photo, Captain Shaun Rose, John Prtichard, Matt Allan, Wendy Jubb, Darren O’Brien, Julia Barnes, Rich Garside and Captain Alex Blaikley
Departing from Perth and flying at two nautical miles per minute, crews can access 90% of the Scottish population in 90 minutes, but tend to respond more to the needs of rural areas.
It costs £ 2.5 million a year to operate an aircraft with paramedics employed by the Scottish Ambulance Service but funded by the charity to be there.
A £ 6 million fundraising campaign is underway to launch a second aircraft – the SCAA Helimed 79 from a new base at Aberdeen International Airport starting in March.
The SCAA compliments two government-funded air ambulance helicopters in Inverness and Glasgow and two government-funded fixed-wing aircraft from Aberdeen and Glasgow.2 *
The Courier reported this week how the SCAA saw a 47% increase in the number of serious trauma cases it attended last year, nearly a third of which were traffic collisions.