Proparamedics: The ambulance service with a healthy outlook
Small business can: Proparamedics
It is no secret that the health service is struggling to cope with demand. The situation has become so difficult that thousands of staff are currently involved in industrial action, exasperated that they cannot provide a safe service to patients.
So, it is little wonder that companies such as Proparamedics, an independent ambulance service based on the outskirts of Belfast city centre, have become so popular.
It was set up in 1999 by paramedic John Cunningham, who recognised there was a gap in the market with the new build of what was formerly the Odyssey Arena.
Using a £5,000 loan from his brother-in-law, John bought two ambulances and began to provide medical provision at all the major musical, sporting and social events at the facility.
The business was successful from day one as demand continued to grow and John's sister, Heather Hamill-Vaughan came on board to help him manage his workload when he was unwell.
Heather is now director of Proparamedics. She says: "At the time it was set up, there were only two voluntary services that provided cover for everything and they were St John Ambulance and the Red Cross. They were run by volunteers and couldn't cover everything.
"Northern Ireland was about 10 years behind the rest of the UK in terms of private ambulance cover, so it was very progressive.
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"People just got to hear about Proparamedics. We started out at the Odyssey and then grew to boxing events and equestrian events and it just grew and grew.
"At the moment, we provide everything from first aid right up to emergency consultants. We can provide cover for all sorts of events."
Over the years, Proparamedics has also vastly increased the different services it provides, including patient transfers, family transfer service, first aid training and medical repatriation.
Heather says: "We now look after about 50,000 patients a year.
"We provide patient transfers across all the Northern Ireland health trusts and we also repatriate patients for insurance companies.
"We also specialise in a family transfer service, offering peace of mind to families who need family members transferred via ambulance in exceptional circumstances.
"To date we have transferred patients from nursing homes and hospitals to another location, usually to be closer to family members who don't live in Northern Ireland.
"The patients aren't able to fly so we transfer them by ambulance by land and we make sure they arrive at their new home safely.
"We also take much-loved but frail grandparents to weddings and we can do it very discreetly.
"Our staff can wear uniforms or not and they pick up the person and bring them to the event and leave them in the care of their family until it is time for them to go home.
"It means that people can enjoy a family event together, so for example, you might have the father of the bride who would otherwise have to bring their parent to the wedding and leave the event later in the day to make sure they get home safely.
"If you use our service, it means that everyone gets to be together and the father of the bride can be there throughout the whole day.
"We also brought a father who was in palliative care to his daughter's wedding day and he very proudly managed to walk her down the aisle, creating very special memories for everyone in the family.
"We also transferred a terminally ill lady from the hospice to see the house that her husband had built for the very first time.
"She would never have seen the house if we hadn't been there to help them.
"On another occasion, we transferred two very ill twins to their own christening and we were very mindful there were family members there who were meeting the babies for the first and last time.
"We've also taken palliative care patients to their own wedding ceremonies.
"As a company, we recognise what a privilege it is to be able to very professionally and discreetly assist families who find themselves in the most difficult circumstances, under what can be tremendous pressure to get it right.
"These are all very important services, but they are things that the health service can't provide and that's where we come in."
Another way Proparamedics is working to reduce the strain on the health service is through a recently implemented initiative with the GP out-of-hours service in the South Eastern Trust.
Paramedics from the company now work alongside the service, providing assistance with house calls and allowing the GPs to spend more time on patient consultations.
The scheme has been a success and Heather hopes it will expand to the other trusts across Northern Ireland.
Heather joined the company in 2009 - but it happened more by accident than design.
Essentially, she offered to help John while he was unwell and never left the business.
"John had run the business singlehandedly and very successfully, but by that stage the business had expanded to the point that it needed more than one person managing it," continues Heather.
"It was January and at the time, I was working at South Eastern Regional College (SERC) and John took ill. My mum and I went to visit him and his phone was ringing while we were there.
"I told him to give me the phone and I would keep it until he got better.
"For a few months I was working part-time at the college three days a week and on my two days off, I helped John.
"It came to March and John said to me that if I didn't come and work for the company, he was going to have to sell it.
"There was just something about the business. I knew it was going to continue being a success, and it was so interesting.
"No two days were the same, he was the clinical side, while I am the most non-clinical person you have ever met, but I'm good at logistics. I'm very good at getting people to where they are supposed to be, so I looked after logistics and business development.
"I never worried about leaving SERC, I have always believed that one door closes and another one opens."
So, have there been any particular challenges that Heather has faced since joining Proparamedics?
Without doubt, the most difficult period came with the sudden death of John, which was closely followed by the death of Heather's ex-husband and director of the company, Ian Hamill.
Heather adds: "There have been many, many twists, turns and challenges along the way, bringing with them steep learning curves.
"The key is what you learn from them.
"However, 2017 was one really tough year - in June John passed away and as I have already explained, we are essentially a family business.
"Then Ian passed away three months later.
"Ian and I weren't great at being married but we were good at working together and without the support from every member of staff in the entire Proparamedics team and the relationships we have built, my family and I would never have been able to get through what was a tremendously difficult period."
Heather adds: "As a team, we weather the storms and work at pulling through and it was at this stage that Megan, my daughter, came into the business to assist us."
She isn't the only relative working for the company - Heather's other daughter, Rachel, is a paediatric nurse who covers children's events at the SSE Arena, while her son, Patrick, is part of the team that assists the health trusts with non-urgent patient transfers.
According to Heather, working with family brings with it its own unique challenges.
"We definitely epitomise a family business in Northern Ireland," she says. "There are times when we fall out but we've always fallen back in again, probably due to full, frank and honest conversations being had when required."
Another challenge Proparamedics has encountered is finding personnel who were fully trained and skilled in all aspects of patient care.
As a result, they implemented their own training and education department and this has become an integral service offered by the firm, which now provides a range of accredited qualifications.
Not only does Proparamedics now provide training to its own employees, it also offers training to staff at private companies.
Looking to the future, this is an area of the business that Heather hopes to expand.
Having seen the company grow from five ambulances and 30 staff, it now employs 130 people and manages a fleet of 23 ambulances.
Another brand new A&E response ambulance is due to be delivered this month.
Proparamedics is also working to expand the training and education to include mental health first aid courses, while work is under way to open bespoke infection and prevention control premises.
Heather adds: "My involvement with the business has been a learning curve, it's been a non-stop learning curve.
"I have to say the most important lesson I have learned over the years is that you need to hold your nerve.
"You have to sit tight and follow your gut because it's usually right.
"One of our employees said to me once that what we do isn't a job, it's an adventure, and every day it is.
"We adhere to the vision to raise standards and be known as industry leaders, so it's so important to remember that.
"But probably even more important is the fact that it isn't just weathering the storm, it's about learning to dance in the rain."