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The amazing work of the Thames Valley Air Ambulance

PUBLISHED: 09:53 21 September 2015 | UPDATED: 09:53 21 September 2015

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Every year our Thames Valley Air Ambulance crews attend to thousands of people who need help. Here we meet some for whom the charity is very special

Margaret Smith (right) with her family and grandson Toby (third from left) who was rescued by the TVAAMargaret Smith (right) with her family and grandson Toby (third from left) who was rescued by the TVAA

Support and survival

“It’s the people I meet along the way which makes me enjoy my role so much,” says Kate Martin, Community Fundraising Manager at the Thames Valley Air Ambulance (TVAA).

“I especially enjoy meeting former patients who’ve been saved by our crew. We often take them up to RAF Benson to see the helicopter and meet the members who saved them on that day. It’s such a special moment and one that doesn’t diminish.”

This invaluable service began in 1999 when the AA helped to set up the country’s first national air ambulance service and funded their first helicopter. In 2000 Thames Valley Air Ambulance Trust became a registered charity. “Since then we have progressed rapidly from a ‘swoop and scoop’ service and now bring the expertise of the A&E department to the roadside,” says Kate.

She only started at TVAA last year, having previously worked at Cancer Research UK: “I was a shop manager and organised numerous fundraising events outside shop hours. I knew that I wanted to get into fundraising and applied for a job at the air ambulance. I also help supporters with their fundraising by building relationships with people and exploring new fundraising ideas - which ultimately saves lives.”

A lot has changed at the TVAA in the last 15 years; their helicopter has twice been upgraded and is about to be replaced again in September with an aircraft equipped for night operations.

Not only that: “Originally we only had volunteer doctors on board,” says Kate. “We have now reached 100 per cent doctor-led crews and carry an advanced kit of life saving medical equipment, including blood, ultrasound machines, an I-Stat blood analyser, and the ability to intubate patients at the scene, shaving off valuable seconds in the golden hour.”

Challenges ahead

TVAA doctor Wassim Shamsuddin (Sim) also works as a consultant anesthetist at Milton Keynes HospitalTVAA doctor Wassim Shamsuddin (Sim) also works as a consultant anesthetist at Milton Keynes Hospital

The support the charity receives is overwhelming; with residents across the counties hosting events. Some 207 volunteers dedicate their time and personal skills. With the charity’s success, comes the need for more fundraising. The aircraft at RAF Benson currently costs around £125,000 a month to keep flying. “The new one will be considerably more than that,” says Kate.

The charity is always looking for new ways to raise money: “Thankfully we have some excellent supporters who organise events on our behalf,” Kate points out. “One of the highlights in our calendar is Highclere Castle Christmas Fair, last year they raised over £7,000, and we’re hoping to top that this year. I also remember fondly my first Christmas with the charity. The Burghfield Santas (who are BIG supporters of ours) organise a cycle ride in aid of us. Over the years they have raised over £100,000, and because it was their 10th anniversary we really wanted to thank them and show our appreciation. So we arranged for the helicopter to drop by to really give them a good send off. Unfortunately, due to cost events like this are rare but it was such an amazing experience.”

To find out about the many ways you can help see www.tvairambulance.org.uk.

TVAA doctor Wassim Shamsuddin (Sim), describes a typical day-in-the-life of the crew

If it’s an early shift, we arrive at RAF Benson at 7am. The first task is to get the aircraft ready. We have about 30 mins to get the medical kit checked, on the aircraft. The pilot will carry out his checks before it’s pulled out of the hangar. As part of the morning checks we have to do an engine wash, a helicopter aviation daily check of the engine, as well as fuel checks. Inside, we will also make sure the communications are working ok.

Then it is the morning brief, led by the pilot. We’ll have updates on the weather as well as potential obstructions during the day, such as cranes or events at other airfields. We also check we are all fit to fly.

Next it’s ‘thought for the day’, when we go through aspects of aviation such as the emergency drill. We’ll also have a medical-based thought for the day, choosing a topic where the paramedic and duty doctor will discuss aspects of medical care. There are plenty of jobs to do on base, such as every Wednesday one of the four running kits, two for the craft, two for the car, has to be stripped out and expiry dates of items need to be looked at. Other days we’ll have to do a deep clean on the aircraft.

Next it’s check in on the HEMS desk (Helicopter Emergency Medical Service) and the HEMS Paramedic who sits at the control centre in Bicester. They look at every 999 call within our area of operations and identify whether we could attend. The quickest we can be off the ground is about 30 seconds from the engines being started.

All the paramedics who fly are HEMS trained; so they carry out the navigation for the pilot. Most of the doctors are medical passengers, not trained in the navigation side of flying. We’re still very much part of the crew, we have to be alert to what’s around us, looking out for obstacles in flight. The HEMS desk will be giving updates on the job while in the air. Ambulances may be on the scene so we can get a clinical update before we get there. We have a few options for hospitals: Milton Keynes, Stoke Mandeville, John Radcliffe, Northampton, across to Cambridge, it depends on the patient and what is necessary.

When we return, refueling is the first thing and restocking, so we’re ready to go for the next job.

The volunteer fundraiser

“No one knows when they are going to need the air ambulance. It never occurred to be that they would feature in my life, but you just don’t know,” says fundraiser Margaret Smith, from Reading. “In July 2011, one of my grandsons was involved in an accident and was airlifted to the John Radcliffe. He was seriously injured, in fact his parents were told when they reached the hospital he only had a five per cent chance of survival.

“It’s thanks to the air ambulance that boy is still a big, strong, healthy lad of almost 18 now. We all owe his life to them, there’s no doubt about it. If they hadn’t got him there as fast the outcome would not have been so good.”

She has been volunteering for the charity for three years now, hosting an open day at her home every year to raise funds, selling tea, coffee, cakes and preserves: “The first year I managed to raise £750, £950 the next and this year I was hoping to reach £1,000, but when I counted, it came to £1,421.”

As well as open days, Margaret also holds a money bucket at The Oracle in Reading and she also helped at the Reading 12K this year. Indeed, it seems practically the whole family wants to recognise the work of the air ambulance: “My daughter and son-in-law volunteer too - my whole family are very keen on giving.”

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