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Children’s Air Ambulance announces busiest year since launching

Children’s Air Ambulance announces busiest year since launching

The national Children’s Air Ambulance (TCAA) has announced 2023 as its busiest year since the vital service started over a decade ago.

The Children’s Air Ambulance is a pioneering service, changing the face of paediatric and neonatal care through the high-speed transfer of critically ill babies and children – flying them from one hospital to another for specialist care via the clinically designed helicopters which provide a flying intensive care unit for babies and children.

In 2023, TCAA transferred the highest number of patients in its ten years of service. Working alongside its 11 Clinical Partner Teams, the lifesaving service took to the skies 200 times – saving 296 hours 34 minutes of vital patient time being out of a hospital environment and 694 hours 54 minutes of valuable NHS clinician’s time.

The charity marked significant milestones as it undertook its first Extra Corporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) transfer, which then led to a further three ECMO transfers. TCAA also launched England’s first incubator on a rotary-wing aircraft in December 2022, enhancing its neonatal capabilities for 2023.

The bespoke three new incubator systems helped 78 neonatal patients and their families in 2023 – families like Hannah’s.

Hannah Tuffnell (32) was having a normal and healthy pregnancy when she was involved in a road traffic collision on Friday 26 May 2023, when another car struck hers in her local town – Redruth in Cornwall.

It was from that moment Hannah knew something wasn’t quite right.

“There was a change, I began having reduced movements, so I knew I needed to get checked out at the hospital,” says Hannah.

Once Hannah arrived at the Royal Cornwall Hospital in Treliske, Truro, ultrasound revealed that her baby’s heart rate wasn’t as expected.

“She wasn’t sounding right. Her heartbeat was there, but staying there, not going up or down, which you would expect,” continues Hannah.

Within an hour, Hannah was prepped for surgery and Isabella Hirst was delivered on Monday 29 May by an emergency caesarean – weighing just 2.2lbs.

Born at 28 weeks, there are risks associated with premature babies, so clinicians blue-lighted Hannah and Isabella to Southmead Hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) in Bristol for further care. Clinicians found that due to her underdeveloped lungs from being born pre-term, and the additional oxygen Isabella needed, as well as the continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) – a type of respiratory support – she had suffered extensive lung damage.

After two and a half weeks in the NICU, arrangements were made to transfer Isabella back to the hospital in her hometown where she could be closer to her immediate family.

Because of its new incubator system, this is where the Children’s Air Ambulance made a critical difference.

On 13 June, the helicopter took off from its Gamston base and flew to Bristol to pick up a specialist retrieval team from South West Neonatal Advice and Retrieval (SoNAR) – a team which works closely with NICUs in the South West to ensure that infants requiring specialist care can be safely and promptly transferred to the appropriate hospital.

The specialist neonatal team prepared fragile Isabella for her flight home, making her comfortable in the bespoke incubator, and accompanied her and Hannah – who was utilising the parent seat onboard the AgustaWestland 169 helicopter – for the 172-mile southbound journey to Treliske.

It took just 55 minutes for Hannah and Isabella to reach the Royal Cornwall Hospital – a journey which would have taken almost three hours by road, without considering traffic.

“I was terrified when they said Isabella would be airlifted, but as soon as I knew I could use the parent seat onboard, and that I could be close to her in the incubator system, I soon felt comfortable as I knew I would be there in case anything happened to her,” says Hannah.

“The SoNAR team and the TCAA pilots were so reassuring and fantastic with us, they talked me through the whole procedure for getting her home and they got us back home a lot quicker than it would have taken by land ambulance,” she adds.

Isabella spent a further two and a half months in the local hospital’s neonatal unit and is now home where she uses an oxygen tank as she’s living with chronic lung disease.

“Despite living with chronic lung disease, Isabella is such a calm and happy baby and we’re very lucky to have her back home with us. We have two more children, and if it wasn’t for the Children’s Air Ambulance, we wouldn’t have got home as quickly to become a family unit again” explains Hannah.

The Children’s Air Ambulance isn’t government or NHS funded and relies on public support to raise the £3,600 needed for each vital transfer mission. Because of being there for the Hirst family’s moment of need, Hannah and her family participate in the charity’s lottery.

“SoNAR were fantastic and the TCAA pilots gave Isabella a lovely keepsake certificate, book, and teddy bear for when she’s old enough to understand.

“Once Isabella can go outside a lot more, we would love to fundraise, as what TCAA does is amazing – you don’t understand until you need it, it’s not being funded, it’s truly amazing what they do for children,” she concludes.

Speaking on behalf of the charity, Head of Operations Alfie Daly adds: “The Children’s Air Ambulance charity is continually looking at ways to increase support to the NHS and the clinical teams we work alongside – being there for 200 patients like Isabella and her family is the reason we operate, and I am so glad we could get her home using the new incubator and to know she’s doing well since her transfer.

“On Christmas Day, TCAA transferred a patient to Newcastle Freeman Hospital for a heart transplant showing how vital our service is, and our dedicated team of Pilots, Crew Members, Airdesk Coordinators and the Clinical Partner Teams we work alongside have made a crucial difference again this year.”