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Wiltshire medics prepare for a new challenge
3:40pm Tuesday 31st July 2012 in News
Wroughton has changed since RAF reservist Cheryl Kelser returned home from her second stint caring for the sick and injured as a front-line aeromedical evacuation nurse in Afghanistan.
Gone is the familiar sight of giant Hercules transport aircraft circling majestically above the village after take-off from RAF Lyneham, their base for many years.
“Suddenly, it’s just so quiet,” she says. “The Hercs used constantly to fly over my house and I really miss them. It’s almost as though I have lost a friend.”
Cheryl, a Corporal, will experience further change later this year. The Hercules now operate from RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire, and, with Lyneham heading for closure, her unit, 4626 (County of Wiltshire) Aeronautical Evacuation Squadron, will be making the same move.
The Wiltshire reference in the unit’s title is significant. Since its formation in 1983 – based at RAF Wroughton and then Hullavington before the Lyneham move 18 years ago – 4626 has taken special pride in its county affiliation. Its badge, featuring the motto Tute Domum (‘Safely Home’), includes a Wiltshire wyvern. And hopefully none of that will be lost.
“This is something we are discussing at the moment,” explained Wing Commander Marie-Noelle Orzel, the Officer Commanding.
“However, we are naturally anxious to retain the Wiltshire association and precedent suggests that we will be able to take the protocol with us.”
4626 is a very special unit staffed by very special people. Its requirement for highly trained medics – doctors, nurses, paramedics etc – inevitably means relying almost exclusively on NHS personnel.
So, just like Cheryl, a nurse in the intensive care unit at the Great Western Hospital, Swindon, these are individuals prepared to give up their precious spare time to serve their country.
Currently, there are 145 on the establishment. The fact that some travel from as far afield as Yorkshire, Kent and Cornwall for training emphasises the commitment they offer.
At any time, between 12 and 16 will be involved in the deployment process to Afghanistan, either in tactical and strategic aeromedical roles or as members of a Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT).
Wing Commander Orzel, who in civilian life is Director of Nursing at the North Bristol NHS Trust, took over as Officer Commanding in 2008 and has had her tenure extended for one year to co-ordinate the move.
The Squadron, she says, works very much in harness with its RAF regular counterparts, the Tactical Medical Wing, which is also based at Lyneham. The units will move together to Brize Norton and operate in new, purpose-built facilities.
”While recruiting has gone reasonably well – we actually have a waiting list of paramedics wanting to join us – we are still short of doctors and nursing officers with experience in areas such as intensive care and emergency nursing,” said the Wing Commander.
“But many are taking up the challenge. These are people who are seeking something slightly different to their day job and I think that much of the success of the Squadron is down to the fact that this is what we provide.”
Squadron Leader Lorrie Laughton, who lives in Oxfordshire and is a paediatric emergency nursing consultant at the Whittington hospital, North London, returned in January after a three-month stint as the first female RAF reservist to serve in a MERT team – comprising a doctor, two paramedics and herself as the emergency nurse.
To understand the role, just imagine being in the rear of a Chinook helicopter travelling at 160mph where there is noise, dust, vibrations and high temperatures as well as incoming enemy fire – and you are battling to resuscitate a seriously injured patient.
That was routine for Lorrie. “Yes, it could be exhausting – sometimes, there would be up to five shouts a day and some very difficult cases to deal with,” she said. “But it was a privilege to work in a team in which we gave so much support to each other. The pilots were just superb. They were working in really difficult conditions, yet would always get as close as possible to a casualty.
“We treated all casualties the same, whether military personnel, enemy forces or local people. I know some find that hard to digest but our job was to provide the best possible medical provision whoever it might be. The toughest situation was when children were involved.
“For all that, I can still say I had a good time. I can look back and think that, hand on heart, we were responsible for saving at least a dozen lives.”
Cheryl Kelser’s Afghanistan log shows that over four months she dealt with 725 patients as a flight nurse transporting the sick and injured to hospitals. It was her second tour there and, she says, “gave me a lot more confidence which, from a management point of view, will transfer very positively back to my civilian job in the NHS.”
She celebrated her 49th birthday while at Camp Bastion. “They made me a cake but it turned out to be the most awful day because we lost some lives and were so incredibly busy that it was another three days before I opened my presents.”
Despite that – and the terrifying memory of being under fire while landing at Lashkar Gah – Cheryl says: “I would go back tomorrow and would love to do one more tour before we pull out of Afghanistan. I joined up because I wanted to take my nursing into different and challenging areas and can now look back and feel I have done something really worthwhile with my life.”
Corporal Simeon Tomlinson, from Norfolk, a paramedic with the East of England Ambulance Service, has also used his medical skills in Afghanistan.
He said: “It’s a very different challenge from the civilian role because you are constantly exposed to patients with the sort of injuries you might only encounter once or twice throughout a career – and in a harsh environment, too.
“What impressed me was the system operated by the British. From being picked up by a MERT team, a very seriously patient can be back in this country in 48 hours receiving the best possible hospital treatment.”
For more information about 4626 Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, call 01249 896 861.
To learn more about reserve service in the South West, call Wessex Reserve Forces and Cadets Association on 0800 220953 or log on to www.wessexrfca.co.uk.
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