Most of us will hopefully never need the assistance Devon Air Ambulance, but for those who do it can literally be a matter of life and death.
Amazing survival stories range from a North Devon farmer who had to run 50 metres in excruciating pain into a trough of cold water after being severely burnt by a burst hot water pipe, to a pensioner who lost control of a chainsaw and suffered severe facial injuries.
Their stories have been shared to support the charity’s Christmas appeal, which is more vital than ever this year due to a lack of about £2m in funds as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
The severe burns survivor
Farmer and cheesemaker Peter Willes of Horwood, near Bideford, was working in one of his barns when in a split second a pipe burst, and boiling water gushed out all over him.
He suffered burns to more than half of his body in June.
The father-of-three recalled: “I knew immediately that I needed to get out, but I was trapped in the corner and the only way out was through the torrent. I was soaked through as I ran 50 metres to reach and get into a cattle trough of cold water.”
His son Jack called 999 and a land ambulance crew arrived just minutes later. Upon seeing the injuries that Peter had suffered, the crew immediately called for Devon Air Ambulance.
When the aircrew arrived Peter was administered pain relief as they gently wrapped him in specialist cling film to help minimise the risk of infection.
Through his agony, Peter recalls the coincidence of recognising one of the critical care aircrew paramedics, Chris Saunders, from a joint love of rugby and connection with Bideford Rugby Club.
Peter said: “I remember that way back as a 16-year-old, I didn’t have enough money to pay for something I needed at the club and Chris lent me £5. I’ve tried since to pay him back, but he’s never taken it. And then he turned up as one of the aircrew to rescue me. I really hadn’t expected that.”
The paramedics from both land and air conveyed Peter as gently as possible to the helicopter and flew him to Southmead Hospital at Bristol for care in their burns unit.
He had suffered 52 per cent burns, specifically his right shoulder, arm, hand and torso and both legs. Due to the extent of the injuries Peter was immediately moved to Swansea Specialist Burns Unit.
To manage the severity of the pain, he was placed on a ventilator in an induced coma for the following 10 days. During his stay in Swansea, Peter had major skin grafts, from his left side to his right arm, torso and leg.
His memory of that time is very limited, but he said: “I do, however, remember that the nurses had to roll me twice a day but it was such absolute agony, they had to administer extra painkillers before each time.”
Peter’s partner Ros added: “It was a very worrying time for everyone, and some very difficult days followed. The support the family and I received from so many people over the following weeks was overwhelming.
“Due to the Covid restrictions, we were unable to visit Peter in Swansea which was heart-wrenching, but I reassured myself by knowing he was in the best place he could be.
“The whole medical process, team and care Peter received, and is still receiving, is amazing.”
As well as the burns, Peter lost so much muscle that he was unable to walk. It has required him to go to Barnstaple Hospital twice a week and back to Bristol once a week to rebuild his strength.
He explained: “They also have to ‘stretch’ the skin, which is so unbelievably painful; it makes doing the physio really hard. But, thankfully, I do now have about 80 per cent movement in my right arm and shoulder and, hopefully, that will continue to improve.”
While Peter was in hospital, his family and friends rallied around, and Jack continued to manage the farms and the cheese business in his dad’s absence, and daughter Katie carried on with her milking shifts.
Meanwhile younger son, Henry, 13, along with his mother Alli, were motivated by the accident to organise and arrange a cycle event to say thank you to Devon Air Ambulance.
Henry’s target was an ambitious £5,000. However, he ended up more than doubling his target.
Peter said: “No one ever knows when they might need the service. My injuries were so time critical; I just can’t imagine what might have happened if they hadn’t helped me that day.
“I am so proud of Henry for galvanising such great support and everyone had such a great time. The fundraising is now over £13,000 and still rising.
“We are all overwhelmed, but it just doesn’t bear thinking about how different things could have been. Our gratitude is to Devon Air Ambulance and to everyone for their support to help keep that service flying, coupled with thanks to the amazing staff at Southmead and Swansea who were just incredible.
“As I started to feel a little better, I felt like I was in a scene from Casualty!”
The head-on crash survivor
The road to recovery for Lucy McIlroy, of Northam, near Bideford, has been slow and painful, but also incredibly inspiring, after she was involved in an horrific road traffic collision in October 2019 and suffered multiple severe injuries.
The English teacher was driving home from work on the North Devon link road when she saw a car coming towards her, on the wrong side of the road.
Despite swerving on to the grass verge, Lucy’s car was hit head-on, trapping her and knocking her unconscious.
As she came around, Lucy tried to move but was aware of a lady and two Royal Marines by her side, all advising that she must stay still.
The following minutes are still a blur for Lucy, and she has no memory of the two Devon Air Ambulances that attended the incident. But she does remember being in the helicopter and pulling on the flight suit of one paramedic, to be reassured that they were only 10 minutes from hospital.
Meanwhile, Lucy’s husband was completely unaware of the accident until he saw an article on Devon Live, recognising a photo of his wife’s car at the scene.
He was later informed she was at Derriford Hospital’s where she was being treated for significant breaks to her pelvis, hip and right leg including breaks to the head of the femur, the femur itself, knee and ankle in its major trauma centre.
Lucy was in traction for the following two weeks before major surgery to completely replace her shattered pelvis and hip and secure a titanium rod in her femur. She remained at Derriford for six weeks and then spent 10 days in North Devon District Hospital and a further two months in South Molton Hospital, before returning to NDDH for another seven weeks.
Lucy finally returned home in March this year.
Having paid a small additional fee on her car insurance for legal assistance, Lucy has been supported since coming home with regular physiotherapy, a support worker, a case manager and necessary adaptations to her home, for which she is eternally grateful.
As well as help with her physical recovery she has also needed a great deal of psychiatric help as she battled with the symptoms of PTSD. Since her return home from hospital, she did not want to leave her house as she is so fearful of any traffic.
But Lucy is slowly rebuilding her life. As she is now learning to walk with crutches, and inspired by Second World War veteran captain Sir Tom Moore, she embarked on a fundraising mission for the charity in October.
As she was in hospital for 144 days, Lucy challenged herself to walk 144 steps unsupported.
She said: “It may not sound much but it was an absolute dream. I know I have to set small goals to improve both my physical and mental well-being and, if I can raise funds for Devon Air Ambulance by achieving this goal, it will be even more worthwhile.”
The lorry crash survivor
Community carer Karen Barber, of Newton Abbot, went to her local shops at Heathfield near Newton Abbot one morning in January 2020 on her way to work when her life changed in an instant.
She was just getting back into her car when a large lorry came alongside her to turn right. The driver misjudged the space and hit Karen, trapping her between the car door and the side of the lorry.
Her lasting memory is how difficult it was to breathe as she crumpled to the floor like a ‘little old lady’.
The driver of the lorry was unaware of what had happened and continued his journey, but the accident was witnessed by a lady in the shop who immediately ran to help and called 999. Another witness stayed by her side until paramedics arrived.
Karen’s son, 14-year old Charlie, was also at the scene soon after the accident as he was heading for the bus to school. He couldn’t believe his eyes when he realised what had happened to his mum.
Devon’s Air Ambulance crew joined land ambulance paramedics at the scene and immediately recognised that Karen had suffered life-threatening internal injuries that would need emergency surgery.
The aircrew decided it would be safer to transport Karen to the major trauma centre at Derriford Hospital in Plymouth by road as there was a huge possibility that Karen could deteriorate further and could possibly require life-saving interventions before reaching the hospital; this would be best carried out in the back of a land ambulance as space would have been required.
Karen spent the following four days in intensive care and then a trauma ward before being moved to a regular ward.
Meeting her surgeon for the first time, she learned that she had suffered horrendous internal injuries; with most of her ribs broken ‘like pieces of Meccano’ and five fractures to her spine.
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The fragments of her ribs had lacerated several organs including her lungs, liver and kidneys. In a nine-hour operation, surgeons were able to stitch most of these but one of her lungs was so badly damaged that half of it had been cut away altogether.
Karen ended up with eight metal plates in her spine and 67 staples in her back.
Incredibly, Karen was discharged from hospital after just two weeks, but with a lengthy road to recovery ahead of her. It was over six months before Karen could sleep in her bed having slept in an upright position in a chair downstairs.
She is now walking again, just using a crutch if she goes out, but the impact on her lungs and liver have had longer term implications.
Karen explained: “I now get really breathless and I know that my recovery will be long and slow. I was warned it was likely to be up to two years and I can quite see that now.”
Fortunately, the driver of the lorry was located, and the company he was working for has accepted liability. This enabled Karen to access some much-needed physiotherapy and counselling for which she is most grateful.
She said: “I was really struggling to get my head round what had happened. I just went out to work one morning and everything changed in an instant.
“My family have all been brilliant and my youngest son, Charlie, has been an absolute rock, along with my partner, Steve, who took time out from his job, as well as my mum, who had to come in every day to start with when Charlie went to school.
“Then came lockdown and I was still helpless. The whole situation really has been life-changing. I don’t remember much about the incident but I’d love to meet the guys who helped me that day, to say a very big thank you for everything they did.”
The chainsaw survivor
Former top-amateur road racing cycle champion Margaret Paramore has recalled the terrifying moment she ‘had a fight with a chainsaw – and the chainsaw nearly won’ while cutting trees in her garden for firewood.
Margaret, 82, of Woodgate, near Culmstock, suffered severe facial injuries earlier this year while she was using a chainsaw in her garden with her husband John, 87.
She recalled: “The chainsaw went into a massive wobble and flew up, catching my face in its path. I was conscious throughout.”
John added: “It was such a terrible shock. I could see that the chainsaw had gone right down to the bone of Margaret’s nose, and it was only her glasses that had saved the blades from taking out her eyes. I still get flashbacks now.”
With Margaret bleeding profusely, John had to briefly leave her to seek help before getting as many clean towels as possible to stem the flow of blood.
The arrival of a first responder and land ambulance crew was swiftly followed Devon Air Ambulance landing in a neighbouring field.
It was decided it would be safer to transfer her to the Royal Devon & Exeter Hospital by land ambulance so that Margaret could remain seated, instead of her laying on a stretcher in the helicopter.
During a six-hour operation, surgeons rebuilt Margaret’s nose. Her first memory after the journey to hospital was waking up in intensive care the following day. Her first thought was for her husband of 63 years.
She said: “I really felt sorry for poor John who saw the whole thing happen. It was just one of those things but because I’m on blood thinners, the blood loss was terrible.”
Since the accident in March, Margaret’s injuries have largely healed, with just a slight hare lip to contend with.
“It makes eating awkward,” said Margaret, “But I’ve been advised that I will be able to have it repaired when the Covid-19 virus is behind us. Without the expert help I had at the scene and in hospital, things could have been a whole lot worse.”
Margaret and John are both former top-amateur road racing cycle champions and despite both being octogenarians still feel they have plenty more miles to do before they hang up their bikes.
Margaret said: “I’ve not been back on my bike since the accident but I’m certainly hoping to, once I’m fully recovered.
“What with Covid-19 as well as my accident, we had a very quiet summer.
“Meanwhile, I’m just so grateful that I’ve survived to see another Christmas and remain ever-grateful to those who came to my rescue back in March.”
The 10-year-old bike accident survivor
This summer, Noah Crooks had been on his way to play football with friends in the local park when he was hit by a car and knocked off his bike.
As the 10-year-old flew over the car bonnet, he landed on his back. As two of his friends ran to call for help, one stayed with Noah as he lay on the ground.
His dad Nick and his wife, Kate, both rushed to the scene and feared the worst, but thankfully he had been a wearing a helmet which protected him from suffering a serious injury.
Nick, of Shop, near Morwenstow in Bude, recalled: “Receiving a phone call to say your son has been knocked off his bike by a car is an experience we wouldn’t wish on any parent.
“Driving to the scene of that incident, not knowing how badly your child has been hurt is a sickening feeling I never want to experience again. Cradling your child at the scene, reassuring them that everything is going to be okay, when you have no idea yourself to the extent of their injuries, is a white lie I hope I never have to tell again.”
Things suddenly became less bleak following the arrival of a Devon Air Ambulance.
Kate recalled: “Their professionalism, decisiveness and reassurance immediately put our minds at ease. We learned that Noah had been unconscious briefly after the impact and, coupled with the damage to the car and to Noah’s helmet, the aircrew decided to take him to Bristol Children’s Hospital for further tests.
“I was so relieved to learn that I could go in the helicopter with Noah to hospital.”
On arrival at the hospital, Noah had CT scans and X-rays where, by amazing good fortune, results thankfully revealed that his injuries were largely superficial.
He had suffered abrasions and nasty bruising to his back but, incredibly, landing on the football in his backpack had actually protected him. And, without doubt, his cycle helmet, which was broken front and back, had clearly protected his head.
Kate said: “The doctors stressed that things could have been so different if Noah hadn’t been wearing his cycle helmet. He might well have suffered a serious brain injury, or even worse, it just doesn’t bear thinking about it.
“The whole incident has been a real lesson to us all, and we’re so keen now to promote safe cycling.”
Noah spent the night in hospital for observation and was then able to go home.
Nick said: “We would like to thank everyone involved and let the aircrew know we are grateful from the bottom of our hearts. They truly are incredible individuals and we will never forget their kindness and support that day.”
To make a donation to Devon Air Ambulance’s Christmas appeal please click here