Local man Phillip Hay has always been interested in aviation, thanks to growing up in Derry with the regular drone of helicopters in the background.
So after two decades working as a paramedic, he jumped at the opportunity to be part of the Air Ambulance team.
Phillip joined the regular NI Ambulance Service in 1994, getting a job in Belfast as there were none available in Derry at the time.
The former St Joseph’s Boys School pupil initially did outpatient work before joining the frontline emergency ambulance tier in 1996.
“When the HEMS (Helicopter Emergency Medical Service) jobs came up, it was something I really wanted to do and I had the application in as soon as possible,” Phillip said. “I went through a very tight selection process to get onto the team and I was delighted, as was my family, because they knew I was always really keen on it.
“I was so used to the drone of the helicopters going over the city in the old days. Little did I know that one day I would be flying up the Foyle in a helicopter as part of my job. It has been fantastic so far.”
The air ambulance is reserved for the most serious trauma calls and the seven paramedics who are part of the team have to undergo extra training to work alongside a pilot and a consultant.
“We had to do three months training, including an aviation course and training to bring us up to critical care level in para medicine. This involved training in the use of ventilators, intensive care drugs and anaesthetics that you normally wouldn’t use on a road ambulance.
“On the aviation side, we are trained to be on the technical crew on the helicopter so we have to look after the navigation, the fuel calculations and assist the pilot with the landing sites.”
Phillip has been part of the air ambulance crew since the service was established two years ago. In that time they have attended over 940 calls across the North including 44 in the Derry and Strabane areas and also a number in Donegal.
“I have been really lucky to be there from the start, to be part of building the service and to see how it has developed. We have learned from different things that have happened and are constantly trying to make the service better.”
Phillip, who is seconded to HEMS for a three-year period, spends half his time on the helicopter and the remaining half dispatching the helicopter.
“We help decide which calls the helicopter goes to and look out for the calls that will bring the biggest benefit to that patient. As part of flight crew we get to plan flights and to land a helicopter where no one else does - at the scenes of accidents or down beside the Foyle Bridge, in people’s gardens or in farm yards.”
Phillip said it is very specialist work and he feels ‘very privileged’ to be part of the crew.
“It’s very rewarding to know some of the patients we have dealt with have been able to come back to say thank you and raise money for the charity; to know that if we had not been there this patient may have died or have ended up with terrible disabling injuries.
“Providing critical care at the scene of an accident or being able to transport a patient to specialist trauma centres makes a huge difference to people’s lives.”
Phillip said it is also hugely rewarding to ‘be part of such enthusiastic team where everyone has the same goal from the pilots to the charity support workers.’
“I’m very proud to be part of that team and see the difference we can make to people’s lives,” he said.
He told the ‘Journal’ that one of the strangest things is how small the helicopter makes the North feel. “If I’m heading up to Derry now to see my Ma it will take me two and a half hours in the car. We recently did a call in Coshquin and I was flying over my Ma’s house thinking God I’m here in 20 minutes!
“It’s so strange to zip down over the Glenshane in that space of time and such a privileged position to be in.”
To find out more about the work of the charity or to donate visit Air Ambulance Northern Ireland’s Facebook page, visit www.airambulanceni.org or call 028 9262 2677.