A second ambulance will be up and running in Shetland by the end of next month, the Scottish Ambulance Service (SAS) has pledged.
The assurance comes after two embarrassing recent incidents – the first three weeks ago in which a sick baby and his mother had to wait many hours to be transferred to Aberdeen and the second on Monday night to Tuesday morning when an oil worker suffering a heart attack had to be taken to hospital in a rental van.
The man, from the Heather Alpha platform 92 miles north east of Sumburgh, was airlifted by coastguard rescue helicopter R102 and arrived at the landing site at Clickimin in the early hours of Tuesday. The helicopter crew then waited half an hour for an ambulance which failed to arrive at the scene.
The patient was eventually trans-ferred to the nearby Gilbert Bain Hospital in the back of a Star Rent-a-Car van, which arrived with a doctor behind the wheel.
A paramedic, who had been flying in the helicopter, went with the patient to hospital where his condition was said to be stable and comfortable.
NHS Shetland head of clinical services Simon Bokor-Ingram said he was “very disappointed” that the ambulance was not available and was waiting for a full report from SAS. This incident was raised by Tavish Scott MSP in a meeting with SAS boss Pauline Howie this week.
Mr Scott said: “I have no doubt that the incident where an injured worker was taken to hospital by private van, rather than ambulance, has sealed the deal for the new arrangements in Shetland. The SAS knows Shetland mainland needs a second ambulance with a trained crew.”
These events, he said, “made the case we’ve all been making for some time. The SAS hierarchy were not comfortable with what happened.”
Shetland has campaigned for improved ambulance cover for some time following several life-threatening incidents when the ambulance was not available, and Mr Scott said he “welcomed” the pledge made by SAS that the second ambulance would be operational by the end of March.
The additional ambulance will be staffed by the six people already training as retained ambulance crew, plus three more who will be trained to ACA (ambulance care assistant) standards. Although not as highly trained as a paramedic or ambulance technician, they would be able to drive and ambulance in an emergency.
Mr Scott also raised the air ambulance service with Ms Howie and stressed the importance of helicopter cover based at Sumburgh which provides lifeline cover for island communities in the event of an emergency call-out.
He said: “Shetland needs to strongly make the case for the helicopter’s retention at Sumburgh. I have little doubt that SAS understand the importance of this service to Shetland.
“Those living on the outer isles depend on there being a reliable locally based aircraft ready to come to their aid in an emergency. So it is essential that the locally based helicopter remains available to provide air ambulance cover.”
The patchy nature of emergency cover was illustrated when Scalloway woman Davina Leask’s nine-month-old son Lincoln was taken ill last month.
Ms Leask took the baby to the Gilbert Bain Hospital’s casualty department because he was “so poorly”, being very sick, having a high temperature and refusing to eat or drink.
He was admitted on Tuesday 12th January with a chest infection, and Ms Leask was told at 10am the following day that she and the baby would be transferred to Aberdeen. It would take about four hours to organise the air ambulance, she was told, and an elderly male patient would be going too.
Ms Leask’s partner Joe went to Aberdeen by ferry that evening, while she waited and waited.
At teatime she was told that as Lincoln and the elderly male patient were now stable, the air ambulance had to deal with some other emergencies but would be with them around 8pm.
Again they waited, but as there had been another emergency they were told the air ambulance would only be arriving at Sumburgh at 10.10pm. The ambulance would come and transfer them to the airport at 9.30pm.
But at 9.50pm a nurse informed Ms Leask and the elderly patient that the ambulance had been called to Walls (Ms Leask later found out the call had not been urgent). Eventually, however, they did set off for Sumburgh.
But when the ambulance got to Quarff the nurse escort told the patients they were having to head back to the hospital because the air ambulance crew were “out of flying hours.”
The air ambulance then had to leave Sumburgh with no patients and head back to Aberdeen to refuel and change crew before returning to Sumburgh to pick the patients up.
Ms Leask, Lincoln and the male patient, with a nurse escort, did finally make it to Sumburgh, boarding the air ambulance at 2.30am, more than 16 hours after being told they were going to Aberdeen. They arrived at hospital at 4am “completely exhausted”.
Ms Leask said: “It was a stormy night with wind and rain. It was very stressful. We have four other children and I was worrying about them.”
Fortunately Lincoln recovered after a few days, having been put on oxygen and having drips put into his head and feet, but it had been traumatic.
Ms Leask said: “Luckily my son made a full recovery but I am disgusted with the stress myself, my partner and the elderly gentleman were put through.”
The future improvement in ambulance cover was welcomed by NHS Shetland chief executive Sandra Laurenson, who said: “The board has been working closely with SAS for many months to introduce a second ambulance and it worked with them up to last May to introduce a retained model and it has been closely monitoring progress.
“While the interim measure of introducing overtime [for ambulance staff] as agreed with the board last May has been helpful, it has not proven to be failsafe, and I am very pleased we have now got to the stage the second ambulance is imminent as I believe it will be a very important component for health care in Shetland.”
Mr Scott pointed out that Shetland’s current ambulance provision, with one station and eight full-time staff, compares unfavourably to the Western Isles which has six ambulance stations and 31 full-time staff.