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'Dealing with the most critically unwell people, sometimes inevitably, patients don't survive... the work can be harrowing and there are patients who stay with you. We all have our ghosts. If my job has taught me anything it is that life is precious so make the most of it while you can'

On International Women’s Day, Sinead Campbell-Gray, an emergency consultant who flies with the Northern Ireland air ambulance service, tells Lindy McDowell how she fulfilled a lifetime ambition to bring help to those who need it most — and why she teaches her own three daughters that the sky’s the limit


Sinead Campbell-Gray

Sinead Campbell-Gray

With HEMS crew members Cathrine Bell (left) and Emma Boyland

With HEMS crew members Cathrine Bell (left) and Emma Boyland

Northern Ireland’s first Helicopter Emergency Medical Service

Northern Ireland’s first Helicopter Emergency Medical Service


Sinead Campbell-Gray

Sinead Campbell-Gray's profile picture on Twitter includes the following lines from a poem by the American feminist writer LR Knost... 'Do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world. All things break. And all things can be mended. Not with time, as they say, but with intention. So go. Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally. The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you'.

It's the sort of inspirational quote you'll often see posted by many a young woman like Sinead, with whom it finds resonance.

But in this instance there is something especially apt in that phrase about the broken world waiting "for that light that is you".

For Sinead Campbell-Gray is one of a highly skilled, dedicated and extended team of people delivering a new form of emergency medicine in Northern Ireland via the recently established NI HEMS (Northern Ireland Helicopter Emergency Service).

Launched in July last year, it has already dealt with 250 call-outs and its success can be measured not just in lives saved but, as Sinead puts it, by the positive outcome for so many of those "who may have survived, yes, but would have been a very different person".

Working together with other doctors, with their paramedic colleagues and with two brilliant pilots, Dave O'Toole and Richard Steele, she says their aim is to turn the back of a helicopter into a mobile intensive care unit on a par with any hospital intensive care unit.

Sinead (her full title is Consultant in Emergency Medicine, NIHEMS, and Consultant, Royal Victoria, Emergency Department) is a resuscitationist.

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When I first heard the word it sounded like a member of a minority religion, but is actually the term used to describe those working at the forefront of pre-hospital care, trauma management and resuscitation.

In emergencies, where speed is of the essence, the HEMS helicopter team (the service is based at the old Maze prison site) can, inevitably, be with a patient in a fraction of the time it may have taken by road.

Sinead's skills were developed in the years she spent in Australia, London and North Yorkshire, working in air ambulances there.

After a year in Brisbane, Australia, she returned to the UK, where she became the first Queen's University graduate to complete the HEMS London helicopter crew course.

"I fought very hard for it," she says simply.

You can just imagine. She doesn't come across as the sort of woman who lets barriers stand in her way.

From London she moved to North Yorkshire and the Great North Air Ambulance operating over a wide area including the Peak District.

"I fell in love with it. I honed my skills with it. I was totally in my flow."

She'd also fallen in love with her now husband, Andrew Gray, a HEMS paramedic.

But eating away, she says there was "bitter, sweet" knowledge that her native Northern Ireland was lagging behind the sort of services she was helping to provide in England.

It was a call from her friend, the late Dr John Hinds, that prompted her, and Andy, to return. Much-loved and deeply-mourned, the charismatic Dr Hinds was a consultant anaesthetist and intensive care consultant at Craigavon Hospital. But he was best known for his voluntary work as part of the Motorcycle Union of Ireland's medical team.

Passionate about both his sport and rapid response emergency care, he was one of a team of people campaigning for an air ambulance service in Northern Ireland.

When Sinead got the call from John Hinds she says: "I decided I had to put my money where my mouth is. This was something I believed in and I needed to come over and put my shoulder to the wheel."

Tragically Dr John Hinds, was killed in a motorcycle accident in Dublin in July 2015.

Sinead says: "It was such a great loss. John was a driving force, a very forthright man, a very intelligent guy. Those of us who were involved in the campaign with him knew we needed to carry this on."

She acknowledges that, poignantly, because of the profound effect John Hinds' death had on fellow clinical staff, the motorcycling fraternity and the wider public, there was now a massive groundswell of support for the air ambulance service he had dreamt of.

But the dream wasn't yet a reality. Politicians had to be convinced.

That campaign was eventually successful but she describes it as "a long, harsh road".

The service she and other doctors, paramedics and pilots in the team now deliver would not be possible without the most stringent training - and a degree of commitment to training you'd associate with top level sports teams.

"Myself and my paramedic colleague," she explains, "we train together every day."

Every day?

"Every day."

She continues: "We work together symbiotically until it becomes second nature to us. We do the drills every single day. Our mantra is, practice for the worst, hope for the best.

"Yes, it's fair to say there are analogies with high-performing sports teams. How we work together is not telepathy. It's acquired instinct.

"And it means we can deliver an excellence of care on the level of a hospital intensive care unit. Except we're doing it in the likes of a ditch on the Glenshane Pass."

Time and again Sinead underlines that all this is a result of teamwork. Not just within the HEMS staff but with the wider medical team and the other emergency services, the police, fire and rescue, road paramedics.

She talks about their "phenomenal expertise" and her utmost respect for all those who make the HEMS work possible (including the public for their support to the air ambulance charity).

Sinead grew up in Cookstown and from an early age was mesmerised by science - "how things work, how people work."

Her mother Nora Campbell and her father Brendan were both teachers. Sinead's brother Niall is an orthodontist living in Australia; her sister Aisling Cowan, who lives in London, has a doctorate in English.

Sinead studied at St Patrick's Dungannon before graduating in medicine from Queen's University.

She and Andy have three young daughters - Aoibhe (6), Isibeal (4) and Cecili (3). Andy is an instructor with the Ulster Flying Club at Newtownards and already their two oldest girls have had flying lessons.

"I want to be an example to my girls, to teach them that any young girls can do what I do. Without wishing to sound cheesy about it, I teach my daughters that the sky's the limit. If my job has taught me anything it is that life is precious. Make the most of it while you can."

It must be difficult at times though, to deal with the sights she sees?

"Unfortunately with my job you're dealing with the most critically unwell. With people whose world is falling apart. My focus is to do the very best I can. My ethos is - if this was my loved one what would I want done for them?

"Sometimes inevitably, patients are just too unwell to survive. That is the most difficult facet of the job for me and for the team.

"But there is a comfort in knowing that we have given them the very highest level of treatment.

"So yes, the work can be harrowing. And inevitably there are patients who stay with you. We all have our ghosts."

She still keeps in touch with many families she's dealt with. And in work there is the team debrief, which she describes as "very powerful and potent".

Everybody talks. Everybody shares. Everybody gets it out there.

And away from work? She returns to that theme about recognising how precious life is.

"You have to be proactive about enjoying life."

On this International Women's Day, does she see herself as a role model for young women?

"I'm working in what I suppose would have been seen as two traditionally male roles, both in the emergency department and with HEMS, but I think it's up to us all to smash those old-fashioned notions about gender roles."

She agrees that this applies both ways - as witnessed by more young men coming into nursing.

"It's encouraging that young people are no longer allowing those gender tram-lines to hold them back."

I mentioned at the outset those few lines of poetry on Sinead's Twitter feed.

Trawling through the internet for background information about resuscitationary medicine, I come across another piece of wisdom - this directed at young people aiming to qualify in this most challenging field - a quote, which I think, sums up the enormity of the work being done by this remarkable woman and by those other heroes of HEMS and the emergency service who support them.

It made me anyway, gulp a little with emotion and utter admiration.

"You are not studying to pass the exam," it advises bluntly, "You are studying for the day you are the only thing between the patient and the grave."

Air ambulance charity needs £2m annually

The first patient to be airlifted by the NI HEMS crew was an 11-year-old Castlewellan boy, Conor McMullan who had been injured in a farm accident. The service had still not officially been launched at that point.

Conor -on his way to full recovery - was among those who attended the official launch where his father told reporters:

"It was very traumatic for us but it was very settling to know the air ambulance was there and he was going to get the care he needed within minutes.

"It really put me at ease and so did the professionalism of the team. It really is a vital service."

Although the start-up money came from government, Air Ambulance Northern Ireland is a charity and needs to raise £2m per annum to fund the HEMS service.

Details of how to help or make a donation can be found on the website: www.airambulanceni.org/

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