When doctors at QEQM hospital had done all they could to treat Ramsgate toddler Aspen – who was on a ventilator after having difficulties breathing – it was imperative that she got to a specialist Paediatric Intensive Care unit (PICU) quickly.
This wasn’t the first time that her parents Anneka and Paul had seen their daughter struggling for breath, due to her underlying health conditions, and they knew how important it was for her to get the treatment she needed as soon as possible.
“We knew that when she was in the PICU she would be safe. Intensive care was the best place for her to be,” said Anneka.
Since being born prematurely at 25 weeks in July 2017, Aspen has had chronic lung disease and problems with swallowing, which means she tends to aspirate (inhale) liquids and occasionally food, causing severe infections and pneumonia in her lungs.
On 23 March this year – just as the country was going into lockdown – Anneka and Paul took Aspen to Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother Hospital in Margate as she was struggling to breathe after developing a cough a few days before.
“We had been trying to treat her at home due to the Covid-19 situation but we could see in her eyes that she was tired and just not herself. We knew she definitely needed to go into hospital,” Anneka said.
After two days on a ward – during which time she was put into isolation and tested negative for Covid-19 – Aspen’s breathing became more and more laboured despite being given different forms of oxygen.
Eventually the decision was made to anaesthetise her and put her on a ventilator. As the hospital in Margate isn’t able to support small children in this situation Aspen had to be transferred to one with a PICU.
This is where the Children’s Air Ambulance was able to help.
The helicopter was mobilised from its Oxford base and flew to Battersea Heliport in London to pick up a specialist paediatric team from the South Thames Retrieval Service and then on to Margate.
On arrival at Margate, the STRS team prepared Aspen for the flight back to London for her to be admitted to the Evelina Children’s Hospital – just a short land ambulance drive from Battersea Heliport.
“When we were told that Aspen had to go to London I was worried about how she would get there and be kept stabilised on the ventilator. I was terrified as I know how long it can take to drive from Margate, so when they said she was going by helicopter and I could travel with her I was relieved – but nervous because I don’t like flying,” Anneka said.
However, her fears were not realised.
She said: “The pilots were amazing and reassured me that it was a beautiful day to fly and that Aspen and I were in the best of hands. The STRS team also put me at ease. I was surprised at how quickly everything happened.”
It took just 31 minutes to fly from Margate to London compared with a road journey of about two hours.
When they arrived at the Evelina, staff were still in the process of changing the location of the PICU as the building was being reconfigured because of the Covid-19 crisis.
Only one parent was allowed to be at the hospital due to the pandemic so Anneka stayed with Aspen and kept in touch with Paul by phone and video calls.
Doctors diagnosed Aspen with aspiration pneumonia and she was kept on a ventilator for five days. She spent another four days in the PICU before being transferred to a ward for tests and monitoring.
After 12 nights Aspen was discharged and Paul and the couple’s older daughter Adison, six, drove to London to collect them – a journey that took two hours each way, even with the reduction in traffic due to the lockdown.
Since returning home on April 6, Aspen has, according to her mum, “gone from strength to strength.” She loves being with other children – especially her sister – and is due to start nursery this month.
Anneka said: “I am so thankful that we got to use the Children’s Air Ambulance. It’s an amazing service. Not only were Aspen and I in great hands, but we also got to hospital so quickly which was a huge relief for me and calmed my anxiety.”
For anyone who wants to find out more about the lifesaving charity, call 0300 3045 999 or visit www.childrensairambulance.org.uk