Why we fly
The lovely ladies from STRS put me at ease and the Children’s Air Ambulance pilot explained about the flight, told me not to worry and made me feel safe.
When four-week old Brandii-Leigh tested positive for the respiratory virus RSV she was regularly stopping breathing for periods of 10 or 11 seconds.
“She went a horrible shade of grey and was gasping for breath. She made a grunting noise when she was trying to breathe. It was very distressing,” says her mum Samantha.
Brandii-Leigh was being looked after at the Conquest Hospital in her home town of Hastings, but without a paediatric intensive care unit there was a limit to the treatment she could receive there.
For three days she was given oxygen via different methods including wafting and CPAP machine, but her breathing didn’t improve.
It became so laboured and the length of the apnoeas (period of not breathing) got longer and more frequent so it was decided to intubate Brandii-Leigh and put her on a ventilator.
“It all happened so quickly. Suddenly the room was full of people and my baby was taken to the intensive care unit. They said I could go in with her and hold her hand but I was too upset. I couldn’t stop crying so just stayed in a waiting room,” says Samantha.
She was told that Brandii-Leigh was going to be transferred to the Evelina Children’s Hospital in London – where there are specialist paediatric facilities – and assumed that it would be by road.
“I was so surprised when they said a helicopter was going to take us. I was already petrified about what was happening to my baby and I am also scared of heights, so for me flying was a worst case scenario.”
But Samantha’s fears were short-lived.
The Children’s Air Ambulance was mobilised to fly from its base in Oxford to collect colleagues from the South Thames Retrieval Service (STRS), who were waiting at Battersea Heliport, and take them to Hastings to accompany Brandii-Leigh and Samantha back to the Evelina Hospital.
As soon as they arrived Samantha knew she and her daughter were in safe hands and as she watched the specialist STRS team prepare Brandii-Leigh for the flight she started to feel less worried about the transfer.
“The lovely ladies from STRS put me at ease and the Children’s Air Ambulance pilot explained about the flight, told me not to worry and made me feel safe.” She says.
Some patients are placed into a specially-designed BabyPod for the helicopter transfer. This provides a safe and secure environment, and allows for treatment to continue during the flight.
“It is a very impressive piece of equipment and looks like a small space rocket. All the machines supporting Brandii-Leigh were slotted into it and there was a space for every tube and wire. All the time air was being pumped into her and the STRS team were taking readings to make sure that everything was alright. It was like having an intensive care department inside the helicopter.”
It took just 36 minutes to fly from Hastings back to Battersea Heliport where a land ambulance was waiting to transfer Brandii-Leigh to the Evelina Hospital for the urgent treatment she needed.
Samantha’s mum, step-dad and mother-in-law drove to London to be with her shortly after the helicopter took off. In the late afternoon traffic it was two and a half hours before they arrived.
Brandii-Leigh was kept in intensive care on a ventilator. It was a very worrying time as all the family waited for her breathing to improve.
It was particularly difficult for Brandii-Leigh’s dad Michael who had stayed at home with her three sisters aged four to nine years old.
“He desperately wanted to be with us but the best we could do was keep in touch via video calls. Seeing his baby daughter with all the tubes and equipment was a lot for Michael to take in,” explains Samantha.
After four days Brandii-Leigh was able to breathe on her own and was well enough to be driven home with Samantha by a member of the family.
Unfortunately the next evening Samantha and Michael had to dial 111 when Brandii-Leigh had a severe coughing fit and couldn’t get her breath. She was taken by ambulance back to the Conquest Hospital in Hastings where she spent another week on oxygen.
“She got very used to being on oxygen so had to be weaned off it slowly and learn to breathe for herself again,” explains Samantha.
Five months on (May 2020) Brandii-Leigh is a happy, active baby. She has some scar damage on her lungs and needs to use an inhaler when her breathing gets wheezy.
“Luckily for us it was a happy ending for Brandii-Leigh. Thanks to the Children’s Air Ambulance she got the care she needed as it wasn’t available at our local hospital. Everything happened so quickly and was so well organised. The helicopter crew and STRS team were all so reassuring. I felt as though we were in the best hands possible.”
“It is amazing that TCAA is a charity. It is something that is definitely needed and I don’t understand why the Government wouldn’t want to fund it,” says Samantha.