COVID-19 has increased the number of calls for Northern Ireland’s Air Ambulance but lockdown has changed the nature of them.
The doctor who leads the team says there has been an upsurge in life-threatening injuries caused by attempted suicide.
Sky News was given exclusive access to the operation, where each day begins with a retraining exercise.
They are adapting to the constraints of personal protective equipment.
Paramedic Glenn O’Rorke, the operational lead, said: “One of the biggest challenges is communication… particularly in an aircraft.
“We’re wearing a helmet, we’re wearing these masks, so I’m talking to the pilot, talking to the doctor, you’ve got to speak louder because we’re really relying on effective communication.”
They are soon putting their training into practice, the calm of early afternoon interrupted by a call on the radio.
“HEMS call, HEMS call in Belfast. Stand by for details.”
Ambulance headquarters in Belfast is requesting the Helicopter Emergency Medical Service.
They deploy from the former site of the notorious Maze Prison, preserving life from a place previously associated with death.
Within five minutes of the 999 call, the pilot, doctor and paramedic are on board and ready for departure.
They have to assume that every patient is COVID-positive, regardless of the nature of the incident.
Pilot Richard Steele said: “There’s now a curtain to separate the cockpit from the cabin… it’s to isolate myself from the patient in the back.”
On this occasion, they have not been tasked to airlift a patient but to rapidly transport the team to the scene.
It is much more than a helicopter.
It is a mobile intensive care unit and in life and death situations, every second counts.
Keen to ease the COVID-19 pressures on their land colleagues, the air ambulance has been responding to more incidents.
Trauma does not pause for a pandemic.
Landings on the rooftop helipad of Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital have become a daily occurrence.
But lockdown and increased isolation has brought an “upsurge in mental health emergencies”, suicide attempts that have led to life-threatening injuries.
Dr Darren Monaghan, the clinical lead, said: “We’re witnessing a range of traumatic injuries as a result of mental health and the stresses of society dealing with the pandemic.
“We’re able to bring interventions, airways secured, ongoing CRP for prolonged arrests and it’s certainly one of the stark things I’ve noticed.”
They may not be the frontline in the fight against COVID but they are a critical backline for land colleagues.
The sun is setting when Heli-Med 23 returns to its base.
Tomorrow will bring new challenges for Northern Ireland’s Air Ambulance.
Anyone feeling emotionally distressed or suicidal can call Samaritans for help on 116 123 or email [email protected] in the UK. In the US, call the Samaritans branch in your area or 1 (800) 273-TALK
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