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An Unexpected Trip in a Helicopter

This article is going to be a little different.

Instead of focusing on one aspect of the islands we all love I’m simply going to tell you all about something that happened to me and my family when we were visiting one year.

Introduction

old town bay

My wife and I, along with our three children were staying in a beautiful cottage in Old Town. We love it there, the beach in Old Town is one of our favourite places in the world. Our kids were 5, 3, and 18 months, and if we could manage to stop the toddler from eating the sand we could spend hours just paddling in the shallows, and floating around on bodyboards.

On this day however the toddler was grizzly. He had a minor ear infection and was not a happy little man.  We decided that the beach wasn’t a good idea and so took him, his brother and sister to the playground on the top of the Garrison.

He didn’t enjoy it at all, but the other two were having a whale of a time.  Running round, climbing on the Pirate Ship, rocking on the see-saw until…

Our five year old daughter saw that her little brother wanted to get off the see-saw and so she tried to stop it.  In doing so she fell completely off it, and landed on her outstretched arm.

From the second she landed I knew she had broken it.

Getting Help

I worked for a number of years in the NHS, firstly as an A&E Nurse, and then managing an Orthopaedic department.  I taught fracture immobilization to clinical staff from all around the country.  It was pretty clear she had broken the end of her humerus.

I scooped her up and supported her arm doing my best to comfort her, while my wife rang for an ambulance.  The conversation went something like this.

“Emergency Response, which service do you require?”

“Ambulance please.”

*pause*

“This is Ambulance Control, what is the problem?”

“My daughter has fallen from a see-saw and we think she’s broken her arm.”

“Is she breathing?”

“Yes.”

“Did she bang her head?”

“No,”

“Is she fully conscious?”

“Yes,”

“Where are you right now.”

“In the playground on the Garrison on St Mary’s in the Isles of Scilly.”

“What road is that on?”

“It isn’t on a road.”

“We need an address for the Ambulance to find you.”

“Seriously you don’t. Just tell them it’s the playground on the Garrison, they’ll know.”

As you can imagine, this went on for some time.  We tried all sorts of things.

“Behind Star Castle?”

“Next to the football field?”

“Not far from the Campsite?”

Eventually they believed us, and a wonderful man in an ambulance that had been disguised as a landrover arrived.  The paramedic agreed with my hasty assessment and applied a clever vacuum split to my daughter’s arm.  There wasn’t enough room for everyone in the ambulandrover and so I crammed myself into the back, and my wife followed on with the boys.

The Health Centre

The Health Centre on St Mary's

We arrived at the health centre, and were seen immediately by a lovely nurse.  She gave our invalid some painkillers, and found a doctor to come in and look too.  He too agreed that it looked very much like it was broken.  But he regretted to inform me that despite there being a fully functioning x-ray machine, there was no-one on the island who was allowed to use it.

After ascertaining that he was indeed serious, and this wasn’t some bizarre Scillonian joke they like to play on visitors to the islands he explained that the only solution was to fly to Treliske and be seen in A&E there.

It turns out that a radiographer was flown in once a week to carry out non-urgent x-rays, and anything urgent had to go to the mainland.  There were plans afoot to allow the Doctors to use the x-ray machine when there were no radiographers.  But one of the things that plan relied on was the super fast, fibreoptic internet connection to the mainland that we’d seen being laid in Porthcressa only a few days earlier.  That would allow the images to be sent direct to a specialist on the mainland who could give a diagnosis there and then. However this was all pie in the sky at this point.

Some Hard Decisions

laying fibreoptic cable from Porthcressa

The air ambulance was ruled out, as it only has room for one person, and while my daughter was quite grown up for a  five year old, none of us thought sending her by herself was a clever move.

The only other option was the Royal Navy Search and Rescue Helipcopter from RNAS Culdrose.

At this point my wife arrived, out of breath, tired, and dragging two small boys after her.  I quickly filled her in and together we decided that with my background it made more sense for me to be the one to go with our daughter to the mainland. She rushed off to our holiday home to fetch the hand knitted blanket known only as “snug” from whom our daughter could not bear to be separated.

The hospital staff went and did their thing, and shortly afterwards we were bundled into the back of something far more ambulance like than before, and we drove in state to the Airport.

An Unexpected Journey

sea king coming in to land

All incoming and outgoing flights had been put on hold, and as we drove up the hill we could see the red and grey Sea King helicopter come in to land in the centre of the runway

We collected snug from my wife at the edge of the runway, said our goodbyes and hand in hand my daughter and I walked across the tarmac to the waiting air crew.

A smiling man in a green flightsuit walked over to meet us, he stuck out his hand in greeting and as I shook it he said.

“Hi, I’m Zippy.”

Of course you are, I thought, what else could you possibly be called?

We were fitted with ear defenders, and securely strapped in.  By this time the excitement of the unexpected helicopter ride had removed any of the pain and worry my daughter was feeling.  I was just going with it. I knew our holiday had taken a fairly abrupt turn for the worse, but I was going to enjoy the helicopter ride at the very least.

We took off and flew low over the sea with the doors wide open.  I’ve been lucky enough to spend quite a lot of time in helicopters – when I was a kid my dad worked in West Africa for a major oil company and I went out and stayed with him – but I can honestly say that even with an injured five year old, that was the best flight I’ve ever had.

When we landed I thanked Zippy and his colleagues for their care, and we were ushered into the back of a waiting ambulance that rushed us across to the hospital.

I won’t bore you with the details of what happened there, suffice it to say I was right. She had indeed broken the end of her humerus (known in the trade as a supracondylar fracture). It wasn’t quite bad enough to warrant an operation thank god, but it would need several weeks in a cast. And it should be reviewed by a specialist once we got home.

A Surprising Problem

When we were ready for discharge I collared the nurse in charge and asked how we we going to get back to St Mary’s.  She shrugged and said she had no idea.

After much haggling we settled for sorting our own flights back to the island.  The next day of course, it was close to 10pm at this point. And also finding our own accommodation for the night.  The NHS, in their graciousness would cover the cost of a taxi to take us to our hotel. They would not however help me find an empty hotel room in Cornwall in the height of summer.

I set my wife, and all of our combined familes to the task of finding us a room. To their eternal credit they did.  I informed the Nurse in charge that I would love to take her up on her kind offer of a taxi as I now had a room in the Travelodge in Newquay.  To her credit she didn’t blink, just got on the phone and booked it.  I suppose it was easier on her conscience than kicking a five year old with a freshly broken arm out into the night to fend for herself.

The taxi driver kindly stopped off at a Domino’s Pizza on route as the fall had happened mid morning and neither of us had eaten since breakfast. We arrived at the hotel a fraction before midnight. Gorged ourselves on lukewarm pizza, and went to sleep.

Overnight my wife had managed to book us onto a flight mid morning from Newquay airport (Lands End was closed for renovation work) and so after breakfast we jumped in another taxi, paid the extra fee that for some reason Newquay airport was charging everyone (talk about adding insult to injury) and we flew back to the islands.  My daughter with a new and shiny above elbow cast, and me with a significantly lighter wallet.

Life on Scilly

A Pink Cast

Now I’m not telling this story to elicit sympathy.  I just want to make a few points.

Firstly, the care we received from the team on St Mary’s was absolutely first class.  They were limited in what they could do, but they did every single thing they could. They did it quickly, efficiently, and made sure we were fully informed at every stage. Most NHS Trusts could learn a lot from them.  Especially the staff in the Paediatric A&E at Treliske.

Secondly this is nothing out of the ordinary for people who live on the islands.  If you need emergency care then you will get it, but it will involve healthcare professionals on the islands doing their best. It wil involve someone from somewhere to fly you to the mainland. And then, after everything, you will have to find your own way back. The guys at Culdrose no longer cover, but the Search and Rescue service still exists (currently based out of Newquay).  There is talk of buying a property near Treliske for the use of Islanders, and visitors to the isles. If you need emergency accommodation, it will be there for you.  If that genuinely happens it could make a huge difference.

Thirdly, I have no idea if the remote data link to the mainland was set up to allow x-rays to be taken by doctors on St Mary’s.  But if not, then it is absolutely criminal.  I shudder to think of how much it cost to get my daughter and I to Truro. A standard air ambulance call out comes in at something like £2500, but that doesn’t involve as many crew. The helicopter is much smaller and lighter, and the round trip must have been something like 100 miles for them. To say nothing of shutting down the airport on St Mary’s for an hour in the middle of the holiday season.  I know for certain it cost the best part of £400 to get us back to Scilly afterwards.

Anyway, that was several years ago now.  My daughter has very fond memories of the helicopter ride, and the midnight pizza in a hotel in Newquay.  It certainly hasn’t stopped us from coming to the islands.  But in fairness none of us are very keen on see-saws any more.

Martin

Martin

Martin is the creator of About Scilly. He visited the islands for the first time 15 years ago and fell in love. He's been back every year since and would dearly love to live there.

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