Since it’s inception in 2001, Wales Air Ambulance has grown from a one-helicopter operation based at Swansea Airport to what is now the largest air ambulance operation in the UK, with four helicopters. The aircraft are based across the country, in Caernarfon, Welshpool, Llanelli and Cardiff.
In the past two decades, it has evolved from a paramedic-led service to a consultant-led service which takes the emergency department to the patient. Thanks to the Charity’s unique partnership with the Emergency Medical Retrieval and Transfer Service and NHS Wales, it is one of the most medically advanced air ambulance operations in Europe.
When the service first started in 2001, it ran eight hours a day, five days a week, and its vision was to become 24/7. This vision was achieved on 1 December last year, with the introduction of an overnight helicopter in addition to the 12-hour day-time cover.
Since its inception, the Charity has undertaken nearly 38,000 missions and to keep the helicopters in the air 24/7, it needs to raise £8 million every year.
The first patient to be airlifted
Twenty years ago, Neil Chattington, started an under 16s rugby match and little did he know that he would become a significant part of Wales Air Ambulance’s history.
Neil, who was scared of flying, was the first-ever patient that the Wales Air Ambulance attended after its launch in 2001.
Reflecting on his memories on the day, Neil, who was playing for Glynneath Rugby Club against Aberavon, said: “I remember quite a bit. It had snowed a little overnight and we cleared the ground before starting. Aberavon had a really good team with a couple of players who went on to do good things. We always had tough games with them.
“At the time of the incident, we were attacking from our half and I’d made a break, getting past their fullback into open space – or what I thought was open space – and got tackled very hard by one of their props. I wasn’t expecting to be tackled so wasn’t tensed for it. I got spun around and hit the ground hard and when I settled, I felt a really sharp pain in the left side of my neck and lost the feeling in my arms and legs.
“Initially I was really panicked but I didn’t try to move and quickly the referee stopped the game. When the first aiders knew what was wrong, the ambulance was called and I was well looked after by both teams, first aiders and some parents one who used a horse blanket to keep me warm.”
The Wales Air Ambulance crew that day were paramedics Mark Winter and Paul Haddow, and pilot Steve Rush. Mark Winter still works with the service today as its Operations Director. The crew were sent to the rugby club for its first mission by Brian Knoyle, who worked for the Ambulance Service control, after it was feared Neil had a broken back.
Neil, who has lived in Cardiff for 14 years, said seeing the helicopter land ‘initially made him feel quite scared’ due to the fact he’s afraid of flying, but he had ‘confidence in the crew’.
He added: “My first thought was ‘oh dear!’, and definitely ‘something’s wrong’. Having had my fair share of bumps, I knew that this was different. The flight was surprisingly quick and not quite as scary as I thought it would be. I was constantly monitored throughout the flight. Looking back, I think about how simple it was and that it could have been so much worse.”
The Service’s Operational Director, Mark Winter, was on the first 8am to 4pm shift twenty years ago working as a Paramedic Staff Officer. The crew were initially called to an RTC, but on arrival they were not required and stood down. They then returned to base and refuelled.
Whilst at the base, Neil’s call came in. Mark added: “We were then tasked to Glynneath Rugby Club where Neil had been playing in a match. A local ambulance crew arrived on scene and were treating Neil for a neck injury. When we got there, we immobilised him, kept him warm, put him onto patient monitoring and provided the reassurance he no doubt would have wanted at that time. We then transported him, by air, to Morriston Hospital. Neil was a first-class patient and thankfully the journey was uneventful.”
Despite his injuries, Neil, who runs his own property maintenance company, returned to the sport. He said: “It took a while for me to get back to playing rugby again and, unfortunately, I have suffered with some long term affects. As a result, I retired from rugby, aged 23, due to the effects of all my injuries.”
Being the first patient is a story that Neil can always tell. Speaking on how he feels having that title, he said: “I’d have to say very grateful. Thankfully my injury at the time wasn’t as bad as it could have been but the care I received was amazing.”
Also at the scene that day was Max Boyce, who has supported Wales Air Ambulance ever since. He said: “I’ve seen the great work that they do and being the president of the South Wales Golfing Association, we have raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for the Wales Air Ambulance over the years for such a worthy charity. Twenty years, that is a bit special. Here’s to twenty years again.”
(All images: Wales Air Ambulance)