Why we fly
“She would’ve died – no two ways about it. Our family would’ve just been lost – I don’t know how you’d come back from something like that.”
Baby Elsie would have died without the helicopter transfer that got her to hospital for emergency heart surgery.
Within a few terrible hours her condition had deteriorated so much her mum and dad feared they might lose her. Just days before, they had no idea anything was even wrong with her.
Her dad Damian believes the Children’s Air Ambulance flight in January 2017 saved his little girl’s life: “She would’ve died – no two ways about it. Our family would’ve just been lost – I don’t know how you’d come back from something like that.”
Elsie has a congenital heart disorder and desperately needed specialist surgery when we were asked to fly her from North Devon District Hospital to Bristol Children’s Hospital.
Working in conjunction with a retrieval team from Wales and West Acute Transport for Children (WATCh), it took just 24 minutes by air compared to the two hours it would have taken to cover 100 miles by road. And that made a huge difference.
When she arrived Elsie was rushed into theatre in paediatric intensive care to have an emergency septostomy. This stabilised her condition.
Two days later she had complex five and a half hour open heart surgery to correct a problem with the heart’s structure called Transposition of the Great Arteries.
Youngsters with this disorder have the aorta and the pulmonary artery reversed, meaning blood flows to the lungs and picks up oxygen but is then pumped back to the lungs instead of travelling around the body. Blood flowing round the body is unable to reach the lungs to pick up oxygen and continues circulating.
Incredibly, this serious condition was only discovered by chance. Mum Becky had gone into hospital because of stomach pains and a midwife happened to notice Elsie’s hands and feet were a bit ‘puffy’.
After tests were carried out she was rushed to the special care baby unit and it was decided to fly her to Bristol for urgent surgery.
Because Becky had an infection she had to stay in the hospital in Devon so Damian, who doesn’t like flying, was to accompany his daughter in the helicopter.
Before they left, Elsie’s condition suddenly took a turn for the worse leaving her in a critical condition as not enough oxygen was going around her body.
Damian said: “When the WATCh team came down they were hopefully going to transfer her straight back up if she was stabilised but when they started to put a feeding tube in she was gasping for air and it took them four hours to stabilise her enough to fly. It was getting close to being dark but the pilot was keen to take off and she probably wouldn’t have made it if we hadn’t.’’
Once at Bristol she immediately had surgery. For Damian, from Cornwall, this was a time he will never forget.
“I thought I’d been dealt a crappy hand… we had tried for four years for a baby and now my daughter could die in front of me and my wife’s ill and 150 miles away in another hospital. I felt like I was having panic attacks, I was having trouble breathing – I’d never cried so much in my life.”
Becky was soon transferred to another hospital in Bristol so she could see her daughter before she had the second operation.
A ‘switch’ operation to correct Elsie’s condition was scheduled for the Friday. This would make the circulation of blood through the heart and lungs normal.
Damian said: “The operation was at 9.30am on the Friday and we got told it was possibly a nine and a half hour operation. We went into the city for a bit, there was no point in sitting there not knowing what was going on.
“We got back after five and a half hours and the surgeon was walking around looking for us. Immediately my heart sank but he came out and said it been a success.
“We were expecting her to be on a bypass machine with her chest open but when we came back her chest was closed…The operation had gone really well.
“After that all I wanted to do was see her open her eyes again. On the Saturday morning I got there at 6am and said ‘morning’ to her like I always do and she just started to open her eyes so I rang Beck and said get down here now…Elsie started opening her eyes and moving around that day.’’
Damian says he remains eternally grateful to the Children’s Air Ambulance and plans to fundraise for us as a thank you, knowing we get no government funding.
‘’It’s just a joke that no funding is available for you – it’s absolutely absurd. It’s the most important service I think there could be. Without you, Elsie would’ve died. The speed and the extra time that was saved, had a massive, massive impact.’’
In January 2020 Elsie celebrated her third birthday. She is enjoying being at nursery and loves singing and dancing.
“She’s such a funny little girl,” says her dad.