Its not as common as it is over in the states, Air Ambulances, that is. Over here they are funded solely through charitable donations and luckily, the North East Ambulance Services has access to three of them based at strategic places across the North of England.
To work full time on the aircraft, you have to be employed by the charity and are then no longer an employee of the North East Ambulance Service. It appears to be like waiting for dead mans shoes to try and get in, as once a paramedic is there, they are there for good.
This all makes it sound like I want to do it right? Maybe that would be the pinnacle of my clinical career, to be a helicopter paramedic?
About 4 years ago, I had the opportunity to go and work on the helicopter for one shift. I was going on as Paramedic 2 (at that time the aircraft was staffed by two paramedics, but now it is one paramedic and a doctor – but more on that later) which meant that I had no responsibility for the aircraft, navigation or other things I knew nothing about. Whilst in the aircraft I was to sit still, touch nothing that didn’t have anything to do with the patient and most importantly do what I was told and when from Paramedic 1 (who was fully trained and had gone through the aviation course). When on the ground and on scene of at an incident, then I could get stuck in as normal.
So, off I went to the helicopter base. To say I was a little excited was an understatement. At the time, I did think that this was a bit of a special moment for me. I arrived and go to put on the flight suit. There I was all dressed in bright orange, then I got fitted with my helmet, complete with the swish slide down visors – Hey everyone, look at me….I look like Maverick from Top Gun (Yeah right!!)
The aircraft in use at the time of my shift
I was shown around the helicopter and got the full briefing on emergency situations and my role if anything went wrong. I checked over the medical equipment with Para 1, and once we were happy with everything, we retired to the crew room to get our breakfast.
It was at this point that I had my first panic moment of the day. One which stayed with me throughout the day, causing me to have all sorts of scary thoughts.
I was sitting eating breakfast with Para 1 and the Pilot. I`ll call the pilot Thomas (as it sounds suitably posh).
Thomas: ” How much do you weigh mark?”
I was prepared for this. I had been told informally from a mate who had been up before that there was a weight limit to work on the aircraft of 14.5 Stone (203 pounds). At the time I went up I was unsure of my weight, I thought I was around that weight but I have always been a big chap (not fat!!). No one had mentioned anything about a weight limit to me directly (from the staff of the air ambulance). So I looked at Thomas and said
“Ohhh, around 14.5 stone. why do you need to know anyway?”
“So that I can work out how much fuel we need to carry”
Now, if you have read my post on OCD, you can imagine the thoughts that started to plague my head…..What if due to me being fat, there isn’t enough fuel on the aircraft and we all crash and die when we run out of fuel!!. Very quickly, however, I got this under control by assuming that I was around the right weight and Thomas was sure to put extra fuel in to cover for the weight of a big patient plus a family member (which they sometimes transport also). Anyway, I didn’t have to long to worry before the first call came in.
As the phone rang, Thomas left the office and went to start the helicopter. I waited with Para 1 whilst he got the details of the RTC we were going to, then I calmly and professionally (just like maverick) walked to the aircraft with my helmet already on. We took off and headed to the grid co-ordinates that were supplied to us. Para 1 and Thomas did a sterling job in navigation and very soon we were circling over the scene. I felt as though this was definitely the job for me, swooping down from the skies to save lives, being the dynamic paramedic in an orange jump suit exiting the helicopter to whisk the patient to safety in a blur of down wash and rota blades!
However, over the course of the day I realised a number of things.
Helicopters are not a smooth way to fly. Even though it looks like it is going in a straight line, it is constantly making minor adjustments in pitch and yaw. I felt as though I was on a particularly choppy sea, and by the fourth sortie of the day, I was starting to hope that it was the last one!
I didn’t like being Para 2. I am used to making clinical decisions and running with my impressions and provisional diagnosis. I do not like being a gopher (i.e. go for this, go for that), I spent long enough doing that whilst I was a theatre (O.R nurse)
I missed being on the road, part of a crew and interacting with the community on a more personal level
The air ambulance in our area was just changing to carry a doctor and a paramedic instead of 2 paramedics. Now whilst this is undoubtedly beneficial for the patient, I could not see myself working alongside a doctor each and every day. It may sound pompous but it goes back to the last 8 years of study, practice, continuous development and dedication to make me the paramedic I am today, autonomous in my decision making (along with the input from my colleagues)
Even though I realised it was not really the job for me, It still holds a fascination and a pull due to the fact that it is flying around in helicopters all day, even more so now they have a new aircraft:
I enjoyed my day as part of the Great North Air Ambulance. They provide a phenomenal service, especially in the more rural areas of our service, but maybe I am not cut out for the life of flight suits and mirrored aviator sunglasses!