Life savers in the sky: flying doctors

Anne Weaver regularly sees Lucy, 14, at fundraising events for London’s Air Ambulancew1 in the UK. What is remarkable is that seven years ago, Lucy almost died from massive multiple injuries after she was hit by a jeep while running across the road to go to the park. She had head and facial injuries so severe that blood pumped into her airway and stopped her breathing.

Anne, a doctor with London’s Air Ambulance, recalls: “We were on scene in nine minutes. There was a doctor desperately trying to manage Lucy’s airway, with the help of the ambulance crew, but there was so much blood it was impossible to control. She wasn’t breathing. We gave her an emergency anaesthetic, released the pressure in her collapsed and bruised lungs with surgical holes in the chest cavity, packed her face and then flew her back to hospital.”

There, Lucy had almost 12 hours of surgery to reconstruct her face, followed by three months in intensive care. “This was the moment that made it totally clear to me why we do this job,” Anne says. “I now see a girl who is enjoying being a teenager but I know that she was snatched from death by the quick work of the doctor in the park and then our critical interventions at the scene and in hospital.”

Anne has been the lead clinician for London’s Air Ambulance since 2007. The service, now more than 20 years old, pioneered the concept of trauma-trained doctors and paramedics treating critically injured patients at the scene and taking them to a hospital that specialises in trauma.

“When I started with London’s Air Ambulance, it felt a bit like trying to pass your driving test: there were so many things to consider. I remember thinking I was never going to manage it all. You are the only doctor on the scene and making the right decisions rests on your shoulders. That’s why the training is so thorough. The doctors we recruit are always senior doctors and they spend the first month of their six-month placement working alongside one of the existing doctors who will be training them, de-briefing them after every mission, challenging, questioning, supporting them.

“As lead clinician, I am responsible for the day-to-day running of the service, making sure the doctors and paramedics are trained, maintain their skills and are supported. I run twice-weekly case review sessions with the whole team where we challenge and learn from each other.

“When they are on duty, team members can call day or night for guidance or to discuss the best course of action for a patient. The service has a good reputation internationally and I need to ensure we not only maintain our high standards but also stay ahead of the game using cutting-edge technology and techniques. It’s a challenging role and there are never enough hours in the day!”


The original article was written by Marie Mangan and can be seen in full at the Science in Society website.