Jayne Dowle: Why air ambulances must not have to rely on charity

The air ambulance helped treat Leah Washington after her leg was crushed in an accident at Alton Towers.

The air ambulance helped treat Leah Washington after her leg was crushed in an accident at Alton Towers.

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I CAN’T even begin to list the things I would like to change in the world in 2016. So much has been awful about this past year, so many people have been killed, maimed and lost their loved ones, I just don’t know where to start. I’ll tell you one thing though. At the top of my list would be a wish that all air ambulance services in the UK receive sufficient Government funding.

So much has been awful about this past year, so many people have been killed, maimed and lost their loved ones, I just don’t know where to start. I’ll tell you one thing though. At the top of my list would be a wish that all air ambulance services in the UK receive sufficient Government funding.

I thought this even before what happened at Alton Towers in July. I was once in the park opposite the children’s hospital in Sheffield, and watched a little girl being airlifted in on a stretcher by the Yorkshire air ambulance. I stood there with a mixture of awe and disbelief. Awe at the skill and patience of the crew, and disbelief that this service, which had possibly just saved the life of a child, had to rely on charitable donations to operate.

This is why I have always given as much I can afford to any collection for the air ambulance. And that’s why I’ve done my best to support a dear old friend when the Midlands air ambulance saved the life of her teenage daughter this summer – my friend Louise is the mother of Leah Washington, the 17-year-old from Barnsley who lost her leg in the accident at the popular theme park.

I’ve known Louise since I was a teenager myself. We met at dancing class when I was 13. She’s a little older than me, and I still smile when I remember her teaching me how to do the Northern soul dance at the under-18s disco. It is ironic, given the nature of Leah’s life-changing accident, that our friendship is bound together through dance.

Our mothers, Pat and Thelma, had danced together too as children; both Leah and my daughter, Lizzie, also dance. I heard about the accident at the Wednesday night adult tap dance class I persevere with. Everyone was talking about someone from Barnsley being involved. When I heard that it was Leah in the accident, I burst into tears. No mother wants another mother to receive that terrible phone call. No friend wants to think it is their friend going through such pain.

That’s we went along to the huge fundraiser in November organised by Leah and her boyfriend, Joe Pugh, who was also badly injured in the accident. Thanks to the efforts of everyone involved, the bands, the raffle organisers and the generosity of the hundreds of people who attended, more than £20,000 was raised for three organisations which helped to save the lives of all the young people injured in the incident – the air ambulance, the fire crew and the hospitals which treated the victims.

Each one of these organisations deserved every penny they received. And the evening was a proper Barnsley “do” with plenty of laughs along the way. Why though should the air ambulance be reliant on charitable donations to keep on saving lives? If ever a service deserved secure funding, surely it is this. In Yorkshire, it is estimated that it costs £12,000 a day just to keep one ambulance in the sky. The only security is in the form of the NHS paramedics who are seconded from the Yorkshire ambulance service. Everything else has to be raised by the Yorkshire air ambulance itself and its supporters.

An air ambulance can travel at speeds of up to 160 mph, covering two miles per minute. It can be on the spot quicker than any vehicle, flying high over traffic jams and difficult and remote terrain. Medics call it the “golden hour”, the immediate period after a major trauma when life can go one way or the other. When the accident happened at Alton Towers, the air ambulance delivered vital blood to Leah which kept her alive as fire crews battled for four hours to free her from the crashed “Smiler” ride. Without the air ambulance, Leah would most probably have died.

Everyone who knows her is pleased and proud to see her today, rebuilding her life and doing such good work to help other people. How many others though have lost their lives in accidents and car crashes and incidents too terrible to recount, just because there wasn’t an air ambulance available to help them?

That’s why I have not just one, but two wishes 2016. That in the 21st century, the Government should invest in modern technology which can save lives, and that it changes the funding model so that none of our air ambulances are reliant on ordinary people digging deep into their own pockets to keep this emergency service in the air.

I am sure there are some clever figures somewhere which would prove why financially it isn’t viable to offer continuous public funding to such an expensive service. However, I’d like to ask whoever is in charge of making such decisions to meet the families of Leah Washington and Joe Pugh, look them in the eye and argue that an air ambulance is still some kind of luxury. What
price, after all, is a life that could be saved?

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