Why we fly

Jessica’s Story

It was about 5pm on a Friday when we were flying. I remember looking out of the helicopter and seeing cars backing up on the motorway and thinking how glad I was that we were in the sky and not on the road

Ian Williamson, Jessica's Dad

The father of a 10 week old baby flown to hospital for heart surgery by the Children’s Air Ambulance (TCAA) describes the charity as “a fundamental piece of the jigsaw to get my daughter as quickly as possible to where she needed to be for a lifesaving operation.”

Ian Williamson – from Weymouth – accompanied baby Jessica on the helicopter flight from Dorset County Hospital in Dorchester to Southampton Children’s Hospital, along with members of Southampton Oxford Retrieval Team (SORT) – one of the clinical partners working with TCAA.

It took just 25 minutes by air to transfer Jessica compared with a road journey by land ambulance of well over an hour, not allowing for traffic delays.

“It was about 5pm on a Friday when we were flying. I remember looking out of the helicopter and seeing cars backing up on the motorway and thinking how glad I was that we were in the sky and not on the road,” says Ian.

On arrival at Southampton, Jessica – who was born with the congenital heart defect Complete AVSD* – went straight into the Paediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU).

She stayed there, with Ian and his wife Lizzie constantly by her side, for two weeks whilst medical staff prepared her for her surgery, which she now desperately needed.

“At 12 weeks old Jessica had open heart surgery. Before her surgery we were told that it was likely she would need further operations, but when she came out of theatre the surgeons were really positive about how it went,” says Ian.

Nearly 15 months after Jessica’s helicopter transfer (August 2020) she is incredibly well and her cardiologist now feels it is unlikely that she’ll need further surgery – which is such a relief for her parents, who describe her as “a gorgeously cheeky toddler”.

Ian and Lizzie found out about their daughter’s heart problem when they went for a 20 week scan and they always knew that she would have to have an operation. However, they were not expecting the scenario that started just a few weeks after Jessica’s birth.

At just 16 days old she had to be admitted to Dorset County Hospital – where she was born – as she was struggling to breathe. The doctors there referred her to Southampton Children’s Hospital where she spent four weeks being monitored and treated before being transferred back to Dorchester.

At only three kilos, she still didn’t weigh enough to be operated on, but her condition had been stabilised and an Optiflow system was helping her breathing.

Unfortunately, just two weeks later, Jessica’s breathing began to deteriorate again and she urgently needed to go back to Southampton.

Because it was necessary for her to be transported whilst on the Optiflow system she couldn’t be taken in a land ambulance as they don’t have the facilities to support the machinery. There was only one specialist paediatric ambulance that could have made the trip – but that was needed elsewhere.

This is where the Children’s Air Ambulance was able to help.

It was mobilised from its base in Oxford and flew to Southampton to pick up the specialist paediatric retrieval team from SORT and take them to Dorchester. They then prepared Jessica for the flight back to Southampton and accompanied her and Ian in the helicopter.

“Up until the last minute we were expecting a road transfer to Southampton and then we were told it would be by helicopter. We’d been waiting for the road transfer for a few days and each day we were told it wasn’t possible we became more and more anxious, so when we were told that the Children’s Air Ambulance was definitely coming that day we were so relieved,” says Lizzie.

“We were expecting a fairly straightforward transfer but by then Jessica had taken a turn for the worst. She got very distressed and she had a very high heart rate. The SORT team decided to sedate and intubate her and put her on a ventilator prior to flying. She was looking quite grey and unwell at that point,” she adds.

Lizzie was waiting at Southampton Hospital for the helicopter to arrive with her husband and daughter on board.

“It was such an emotional and beautiful sight seeing this Green Goddess emerging in the sky and landing at the hospital, and knowing that Jessica was now where she needed to be for her lifesaving surgery,” she says.

Lizzie and Ian say they were “very reassured by the quality of care” their daughter received from the SORT team and the helicopter pilots.

The couple will always be grateful to everyone who played a part in getting Jessica to where she needed to be for her lifesaving operation. They say:

“We were totally gobsmacked when we were told that the Children’s Air Ambulance is a charity and feel very lucky that this amazing facility was made available for our daughter when she needed it. We always felt she was in very safe hands. The Children’s Air Ambulance will always have a very special place in our hearts

* An atrioventricular septal defect (AVSD) is a heart defect in which there are holes between the chambers of the right and left sides of the heart, and the valves that control the flow of blood between these chambers may not be formed correctly. In AVSD, blood flows where it normally should not go. The blood may also have a lower than normal amount of oxygen, and extra blood can flow to the lungs. This extra blood being pumped into the lungs forces the heart and lungs to work hard and may lead to congestive heart failure.