Life on the front line with Wiltshire Air Ambulance during a pandemic

Paramedic Joanne Gilbert with face impressions from wearing PPE following attending an emergency incident. Photo: Terry Donnelly

The gruelling challenges faced by air ambulance pilots and paramedics during the Coronavirus pandemic has been laid bare for all to see.

A series of images have been released by Sony’s award-winning photographer Terry Donnelly, who was granted behind the scenes access at Wiltshire Air Ambulance. 

One photograph shows marks adorning the face of critical care paramedic Joanne Gilbert, caused by the personal protective equipment (PPE) the aircrew have been required to wear during their day-to-day operations.

You would be forgiven for thinking these images come straight from a film set, but they show the real-life trials and tribulations of air ambulance critical care medics working on the front line through a pandemic.

During 2020 Wiltshire Air Ambulance was called to a record number of incidents, 1238 in total, as pilots and paramedics responded up to 19 hours a day to life threatening emergencies across Wiltshire, Bath and surrounding areas. At the same time, the charity’s income saw a loss of £500,000 due to cancelled celebrations and community fundraising events in their 30th birthday year.

Critical care paramedic Paul Rock – pictured in a full hazmat suit to attend an incident – said, “We’ve had to alter our operations significantly in the past year and it hasn’t been easy, but I’m extremely proud of how we’ve all pulled together as a team to ensure our service hasn’t been affected.”

Mr Donnelly said, “I worked with Wiltshire Air Ambulance on a photography project in 2019 and it was really interesting to see first-hand how much life has changed for the aircrew since COVID-19 hit. I have witnessed the sheer determination and devotion the crew at Wiltshire Air Ambulance have to give critical care to their patients and to help save lives.

“They had to make changes to their helicopter and wear hot and uncomfortable PPE just to carry out their work. Their job role is multi-skilled and extremely demanding, and the way they have adapted and coped with the additional pressures whilst working on the front line during a pandemic has been nothing short of valiant over the last 12 months.”

It costs £3.75m each year to keep Wiltshire Air Ambulance flying. Across the United Kingdom they are one of 21 air ambulance charities who rely on public donations to continue saving lives. They receive no regular direct funding from the Government or National Lottery grants.

Pilot Costello through window with Helimed22 reflection. Photo: Terry Donnelly
Paramedic Tim Grubb with Helimed22 behind on roof helipad at Bristol Royal Infirmary. Photo: Terry Donnelly
Paramedic Rich Miller observes proceedings as a patient receives treatment. Photo: Terry Donnelly
Pilot Nicky Smith prepares Helimed22 for take off in PPE following a call to action. Photo: Terry Donnelly
Paramedic Keith Mills observes Great Western Hospital on approach to landing. Photo: Terry Donnelly
Pilot Nicky Smith and Paramedic Paul Rock take off during a night flight wearing PPE and night vision goggles from hospital helipad. Photo: Terry Donnelly
Paul Rock wears full PPE protection during incident. Photo: Terry Donnelly
Helimed22 flight crew leave the scene of an incident after handing patient over to ambulance ground crew. Photo: Terry Donnnelly
Paramedic Joanne Gilbert wearing full PPE protection. Photo: Terry Donnelly
Critical Care Paramedic Ben Abbott wearing PPE and flight helmet. Photo: Terry Donnelly.