It saves thousands of lives a year, rescues sick children from the remotest of places, and even transports them sometimes by air. It’s not Superman, it’s Embrace, the NHS transport service based in South Yorkshire. The Star’s Rachael Clegg reports.
IT’S hard to think a Barnsley industrial estate could be a hub of life-saving activity.
But, tucked away on a spacious industrial estate in south Barnsley, is the region’s ambulance service HQ for sick children.
In what looks like a nondescript unit are the ambulances and medical equipment that save thousands of lives each year.
And that’s just the garage.
Upstairs is a team of nurses, doctors and expert call-handlers who make sure children from across the region are taken to hospitals as quickly and safely as possible.
The service is called Embrace and it provides ambulance support and transfers for children across Yorkshire 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Call-handling staff locate beds for children and, once a bed is arranged, the ambulance team make the transfer. And that, of course, is no mean feat.
Dr Steve Hancock, transport consultant and consultant paediatric intensivist, said: “Our teams go out together in an ambulance - we have a nurse, a doctor and a driver, and it’s all self-contained, so we can deal with a call instantly and everything we need is in one vehicle.”
The doctor and nurse monitor the child patient as they are travelling, while remaining belted-up in the back.
“We sit in the back and monitor a child’s heart rate, blood pressure and ventilation. While doing that we try to engage the parents in conversation, to ease their anxiety. We usually talk about the childcare of their other children, if they have any, or about the child’s illness.”
One of the most serious illnesses Steve has ever dealt with was that of a child with meningococcal disease - meningitis - which generally affects older children and causes blood poisoning.
“With cases like that a child needs full intensive care, which we can provide in the back of the ambulance,” he says.
Embrace deals with around 45 transfers a week, though some days it can make up to 16 transfers in one day.
The transfers are not quick, short trips. Embrace’s patch, which covers the whole of Yorkshire and the Humber, means one single transfer could be to Scarborough, then to Leeds and back to Barnsley.
The majority of the cases Embrace deals with are extremely premature babies, and Embrace has six incubators which are able to deal with high-dependency premature babies.
“A lot of our work is neo-natal care,” says Steve, 44. “Babies are being born smaller and smaller, some weigh as little as 4lb. The birth rate is going up and technology is improving, so there are more premature babies.
“Around half our transfers are premature babies.”
Each incubator costs £25,000 and provides a baby with the correct environment for it to survive, while enabling the transfer of babies from general hospitals to specialist premature units, such as that at Sheffield Children’s Hospital or Leeds.
The incubator is fastened to a track in the ambulance and plugged into an onboard oxygen supply. It’s a mini makeshift hospital in the guise of a Mercedes Benz van which costs £100,000.
“A nurse and a doctor travel with the van all the time but if something goes wrong we have to stop and take action,” says Steve.
“Some patients have to be transported slowly and steadily but others moved in a more urgent manner if they need life-saving treatment.”
Last year the centre dealt with 3,546 referral calls and transferred 2,236 babies and children.
As many as 656 of them required emergency specialist intensive care. But not all transfers are within the Yorkshire and Humber region.
“We also work with Yorkshire Air Ambulance - we’ve brought patients back from parts of Europe in the past,” says Steve. “We have travelled across the country to transport sick children from Yorkshire to appropriate hospitals.”
The children Embrace transfers are critically ill or intensely premature - and staff deal with suffering day in, day out. And while the thought of working with desperately ill children makes many of us shudder, Steve doesn’t know any different.
“I have been doing this job for 15 years now. It can be challenging but the great thing about working in the NHS is that you get support and a great team.”
His job does make him realise how lucky he is to be healthy.
“I started doing this in Australia when my own two children were little ones. It does make you think about how lucky you are.”
The seriousness of the job means team-work is essential. The whole team - call operatives, doctors, nurses and drivers - have to work together.
“We have an excellent team and we are really proud to be part of Sheffield Children’s Hospital,” says Steve. “Even though we work with hospitals across the region I still feel attached to that hospital.”
Of course, making several ambulance journeys a day and caring for children who are critically ill can take its toll - but Steve’s found remedy in his pushbike.
“I go out with the Norton Wheelers, which helps. That and watching Huddersfield Town.”