They treat more than 2,000 seriously injured Londoners a year, cover 600 square miles of territory, and have the world’s highest success rate. But perhaps the most surprising thing about London’s Air Ambulance service is that it has only one helicopter and one team to serve the entire area within the M25. Despite sitting atop the Royal London Hospital, this chopper and its doctor-led team are a charity initiative that derives only 40% of its income from the NHS. Yet it serves 10 million citizens and gets called out up to 15 times a day to deliver emergency on-site treatment such as open heart surgery, which often makes the difference between life and death (box, below).
Chopper squad saves child
In January, five-year-old Liam Moyo and his brother were walking home from school. He let go of his minder’s hand for a second and ran into the road, where he collided with a speeding car. The car dragged him along the road for 20 metres.
Liam suffered life-threatening head injuries and London’s Air Ambulance team was activated to the incident. Julian Thompson and paramedic Jason Morris provided advanced procedures at the roadside, including an anaesthetic, breathing support and medication to reduce brain swelling, before escorting him to St Mary’s Hospital in a conventional ambulance.
Mission critical: Liam Moyo (centre) has made a miraculous recovery after being treated by London Air Ambulance’s Julian Thompson (right) at accident scene At the hospital Liam had a full trauma examination and CT scan before being transferred to Great Ormond Street Hospital for specialised treatment by neurosurgeons. Liam, who had to learn to talk and walk again, has made a miraculously speedy recovery despite the severe brain injury that he sustained and the poor initial prognosis. He is now back at school, is running faster than any other child and has caught up with his academic studies.
“It was frightful to learn that London’s Air Ambulance is a charity when it is doing an excellent job saving seriously injured people,” Liam’s mother, Saziso Moyo, says. “How satisfying it is, to look back and see that the first responder’s skills and services can make such a big difference. We are so grateful that Liam is now engaging like any other child of his age.” With only one helicopter, the service relies on cars during the night, and only responds to the most critical of emergencies, where advanced skills can make the greatest impact.
Cue intervention from the private sector, and more specifically, from the property industry, whose biggest names have been gathering behind this cause with the aim of raising enough cash to buy and maintain another life-saving aircraft. Frogmore, Galliard, Heron, Fairview, Berkeley, Marcol Group and the Reuben brothers have all made five-year commitments to support the service.
Doctor’s mission: ‘help us save lives’
When the klaxon sounds, the terrible significance is that someone, somewhere in London has been seriously injured and is fighting for their life.
Adrenaline surges, the heart quickens, the mouth dries in the knowledge that, in a matter of minutes, we will be immersed in a time-critical and life-threatening situation.
The medical team and pilots run to the aircraft and two minutes later we are airborne and on the way to an incident. At 175 mph, the flight across London is brief before we begin circling overhead and the pilots bring the aircraft in to land.
London has the busiest airspace in the world. However, when we are on a mission, we have priority in the sky.
Within moments of landing we are in the thick of incidents such as road traffic accidents, industrial incidents or stabbings. While the critically injured victim is central to the mission, the additional challenges of such situations are intense, unpredictable and would never occur in a more conventional medical setting — fast-moving traffic, electrified underground rails, falling masonry on a building site and ongoing violence to name a few.
The inquest praised the Air Ambulance, but called for an increase in funding to extend the capacity of the service.
Training and experience can eventually normalise even the most extraordinary of situations. But open-heart surgery in the dark on a balcony in a housing estate with a crowd of bystanders is challenging, however much experience you have.
During the mission, the personal emotional significance of the incident is a secondary concern. Afterwards there are moments that haunt or resonate in unusual ways — an injured child of a similar age to your own, a suddenly bereaved wife — but the shared experience of the close-knit team provides an often unspoken understanding of these issues.
After treating each patient at the scene of the incident, we accompany them to the nearest specialist hospital, hand over care to the waiting trauma team and declare ourselves “green” for the next mission.
Most patients are so severely injured that they are unaware of our involvement and it is usually the last time we will see them.
Accasionally, patients contact us to say thank you.
Meeting someone whose life you have helped save gives even more meaning to the daily efforts of this incredible service.
Unfortunately, after more than a decade of providing support, Virgin decided to redirect its funds to its own charitable organisations. I ask those members of the property industry who are contributing to the development of London to support the charity. It is another element of what makes this city the greatest in the world.
Julian Thompson, chief executive of the London Air Ambulance
Frogmore’s Paul White, Canary Wharf’s Sir George Iacobescu and Almacantar’s Mike Hussey have been propelled into action. Great Portland Estates chief Toby Courtauld, Wellcome Trust managing director Peter Pereira Gray and Max Property’s Nick Leslau attended a breakfast three weeks ago to discuss the issue and get fundraising under way (box, below).
The aim is to pay for a £2m helicopter and its £500,000-a-year running costs and financial support has multiplied in seven weeks from zero into more than £400,000 of committed funds, of which property firms have provided more than 50%. Land Securities last month even offered a 4,000 sq ft office to the campaign team, free of charge.