Speed of Wiltshire Air Ambulance helped save my life

Of course, I can’t talk for the whole population of Wiltshire, but generally, when I’m feeling fine, fit and well, the last thing I think of is “how I would get urgent medical treatment”.  The nearest I get is Ken Woodward's excellent reminder “Think what if, not if only”. So whilst I’ve donated to Wiltshire Air Ambulance and my eldest daughter has completed the Three Peaks Challenge in 24 hours for the charity, that Saturday morning was just another normal day.  The weather was good; I wasn’t driving anywhere; wasn’t doing any DIY; not even mowing the lawn.

I’d just been finishing some circuit diagrams for the garden electrics on my home PC, when I got some of those “sparklies” – my wife, Mo’s expression for the prism shaped blue and white colours at the edge of your vision, that, for her, often heralds a visual migraine.  Mine don’t progress to a headache or anything serious, being sorted by a couple of Aspirin and a few minutes rest.  So as I had no pains at all, I said to Mo I was just going for a quick lie down. 

Mo took one look at me - and had different ideas!

Apparently I had “a look” that she wasn’t comfortable with… and it was not getting any better.  I say “apparently” because from that moment on, I have no memory of the next five days.  No memory of telling Mo “not to fuss; no need to call 999”, no memory of the first, let alone the second paramedic team arriving.

The paramedics knew there was something wrong, but apparently my condition, (which turned out to be an Aortic Dissection Type A), is not something they see often, as 40% of patients die before they see any medical help.  My symptoms were unclear, I had no chest pains, no facial distortions and I was talking - yet my heart beat was all over the place.   Fortunately for me, one of the paramedics had recently read-up on this “silent killer” and if it was an Aortic Dissection, then I was facing an increasing mortality rate of 1% per hour. 

Yet we had taken the first step to beating these damning statistics, with Mo recognising I was in trouble.  But for now, I was being assessed in the ambulance, and there was a chance that many other factors could go in my favour:

-        The paramedics sought more information, got it quickly and called the Wiltshire Air Ambulance,

-        Their helicopter was available - it had recently returned from its annual six-week-long service inspection and the weather was good enough to fly,

-        The new NHS Bristol Royal Infirmary Cardiac Wing is fully equipped and staffed by world class cardiologists, anaesthetists and, they had room for me. 

As the family arrived at the hospital, they didn’t know if I was “still with them”, or not.  My survival chances were explained (not too good), and after what must have felt like an eternity, they were finally told: Yes, he is… would you like to see him?  They were then allowed to see me stabilised and prepped for Theatre, in what must have seemed a bizarre situation: for there was I, chatting and joking, and saying “What a Polava”.

As I was taken into the operating theatre, Mo promised me she would be there waiting for me… and she was.  In fact, Mo stayed with me for the next nine days and nights.  The Hospital kindly made a room available for her and food and clothes were ferried-in daily by the family, who along with our terrific neighbours arranged a rota to look after our two dogs back at home.

After I came round from the operation, I had no idea where I was or why I was there; after all, I only went for a quick lie down!  Nurses were trying to tell me I was in the BRI, but as a relative newcomer to Wiltshire, I hadn’t got round to discovering all the hospital TLA’s.  

All I knew was I had constraining tubes in my neck, stomach and groin and I had a vague recollection of seeing a sign saying Area 51.  Even with several nurses trying to hold me down, explaining the danger I was putting myself in, somehow, I still managed to stand up, and had my eye on an open door.  That was until Mo simply said, “Chris… you’re scaring me now”; I lay back down without further struggle. 

Under the influence of whatever concoction of drugs they have to give open-heart surgery patients, basically, I was “off with the fairies”.   I was convinced I knew every doctor and nurse, fellow patient and every single member of the Catering team…  And not just “knew of”, we were good work colleagues, worked on projects together, had celebrated our successes together… and during all this time, in my glorious stupor, I was simply blind to all their quizzical expressions! 

In what I now can only assume was a wondrous ploy to get me out of hospital (and safely away from all “those tubes”) my addled mind concocted schemes that required immediate evacuation on Health & Safety grounds: 

-        I saw water droplets everywhere and unashamedly told Jojo and Mo they were “soaking wet”.  The water could only be coming through a leaky roof – but I’m not too sure the proud owners of the new Cardiac Wing were particularly pleased with my “breaking news”. 

-        Next there was the fine wood dust, laying on every surface that was an explosion just waiting to happen.  Apparently I kept two of the nurses occupied all night as we waited for the HazMat team to arrive.  They say I kept this up for three successive nights. [So sorry Guys!]

Apparently I engaged one of the consultants in a detailed discussion about fractals and just how could an analogue brain produce visions of straight line “sparklies”...  Unless of course they were crystals… or could they be glint… I must have been a nightmare!  But the conversation couldn’t have been all that bad, as three weeks later, when Mo and I returned for the post-op review, the same consultant said:

“Hmm… yes, even when you were hallucinating, you were a gentleman and I’d love to talk with you again, perhaps over coffee sometime?” 

I couldn’t possibly comment on the “gentleman” part, but by all accounts, my hallucinations were very positively focussed compared to some of my fellow patients.  Many saw rats, spiders and other “nasty things” that left them quite troubled. I need absolutely no convincing that drugs only belong in the hands of medical professionals.

Now that I’m home, the kindness and thoughtfulness of family, friends and neighbours still amazes me. The skills of the paramedics, the availability of the Wiltshire Air Ambulance, especially Jo, my paramedic who checked that everything was available at Bristol, and of course, all the cardiac team at BRI Heart Institute.  Without all their help and support to bolster Mo’s unbelievable strength, enabling her to “be there” for me, I would not be here today.

But what about “tomorrow”?

-        Does Wiltshire Air Ambulance really do all that as a Charity?

-        What did I hear about Wiltshire Air Ambulance being split from Wiltshire Police?  

-        How much is it they need each year to continue alone?

If like me, you’ve previously thought little about how important it is to get to the right medical help quickly when you really need it, you may choose to “think what if not if only” and do all you can to keep our Wiltshire Air Ambulance flying.