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Behind the Scenes: with Operations Support Assistant Suzanne

Our life-saving service relies not only on the skills and expertise of our frontline crew, but the dedication and hard-work of numerous behind-the-scenes personnel.

In this interview, we speak to Operations Support Assistant Suzanne, who shines a light on her role and its importance in keeping our vital blood supplies stocked.

What is the role of the Operations Support Department?

The Operations Support Department does just that – we support the operation. The department is made up of two Operations Support Assistants – myself and my colleague Lyndsey – and our line manager Lee.

Broadly speaking, as a department, we try to support our critical care crew and keep everything running smoothly at our operating base at RAF Benson. This can be anything from ordering medicines and equipment; to collecting fresh blood and plasma supplies to be used on our helicopter and critical care response vehicles.

My main – and most important – job as an Operations Support Assistant is to collect the blood for crews to take out on shift each day.

tell us about your typical day?

After I arrive at RAF Benson, the first thing I usually do is record the fridge and freezer temperatures in the crew room and – more importantly – the drugs storeroom and drugs fridge. It’s really important that drugs are kept at the optimum temperature to prevent them from being spoilt.

We keep blood and fresh plasma on board all our vehicles for emergency transfusions. My most important task of the day is to ensure these stocks are replenished. I collect the blood our crew didn’t need to use the day before. Blood is a precious resource and must be stored at a specific temperature to avoid wastage,. Therefore, I take the unused blood back to the John Radcliffe hospital’s blood bank. After thorough checks, all suitable blood will be used for hospital’s patients. Fresh blood is then collected from the John Radcliffe, checked, signed-out and taken to RAF Benson for our crew to use.

Before I leave for the blood delivery and pick-up, I complete regular maintenance checks on our Blood Delivery Van such as tyre pressure, oil, washer and brake fluid. All the important bits to ensure we drive safely!

One of my regular jobs is to swab the vehicles to check germ and hygiene levels – something that pre-dates coronavirus. Various sections of each Critical Care Response car and the helicopter are swabbed to check they’re being deep cleaned to a certain standard. The samples are then sent to a laboratory who sent back a hygiene rating – I feel a bit like a CSI! It is important that our vehicles are kept clean so we can keep our patients safe by controlling the risk of infection.

Tell us more about the blood delivery and pick-up between the John Radcliffe Hospital and Benson?

We drive a Blood Delivery Van. This was very kindly donated to us by LeasePlan and is a great example of how non-financial donations can make a big impact to the service we provide. It is invaluable because it means we have our own dedicated vehicle to collect blood. Before Lyndsey and I joined Thames Valley Air Ambulance the blood was collected by our doctors and critical care paramedics. They would have used one of our Critical Care Response vehicles, which meant the collection of blood would be postponed if they were called-out on a job. Having Lyndsey and I in place means our crew’s time is freed up to focus on patient care, and this essential daily task can be completed without interruption.

In each box of blood, there are two packs of O Negative blood, and two packs of fresh frozen plasma. O Negative is the ‘universal’ blood type that can be given to any patient when their blood type is unknown. The blood is given to patients who are bleeding heavily, and the plasma carries clotting factors, so is given to prevent blood loss.

What can you tell us about your work with the training manikin?

Oh, you mean Spencer! Lyndsey and I decided he needed a name. So we named him Spencer, Spencer Wells, after the artery forceps!

Spencer is a high-fidelity manikin used by our clinicians to undertake immersive surgical training in the pre-hospital environment. Made from silicone, the PROSIMBODIES thoracotomy trainer is a procedural and repairable manikin which can be reused time and time again.

When he was first mentioned, the first thought of cutting open and stitching up a life-like manikin was quite daunting. However, it was actually really fascinating and interesting! He is incredibly life-like.

Lyndsey and I went on a training course and learnt how to cut him open and then how to repair him so that he looks brand new again. We learnt so much! To enable us to repair him correctly, we were taught the procedures that our doctors and critical care paramedics were being trained on. For example, we learned how to intubate, just as the paramedics would be doing – albeit not to the same standard. This helped us to know what they were doing, where they were needing to make incisions depending on the treatment, allowing us to patch-up and repair the body correctly.

Spencer is made of silicone, so he’s quite life-like and can be used again and again for training purposes. We can even pump fake blood through his heart and make his heart beat, while the crew are training on him, to simulate a real emergency. I believe there are only two air ambulances in the country that use this particular manikin.

When we repair him, we have to invisible stitch the outer body, so that it isn’t obvious where the crew have cut into him previously – though I can assure you I am no seamstress! We use specialist makeup to disguise previous incisions. We can even prepare the manikin for different training scenarios. For example, if the crew would like to simulate a gunshot or stab victim, we can use the specialised make-up and taught technique to make it look realistic.

Training and education are really important for clinical staff to continue providing our patients the best possible care.

What do you enjoy most about working for thames valley air ambulance?

I feel like I’m making a difference – and I’m working with doctors and paramedics who make a difference. We are more than just a land ambulance; we have critical care doctors who can intubate patients and give life-saving drugs at the scene of an emergency – we really do bring hospital-level care to the roadside.

I remember when I first started. I had come home from work this particular day and I was outside in my garden when I saw the helicopter overhead. I thought “that’s my helicopter, it’s carrying my blood.” It is such a positive working atmosphere, and the doctors and paramedics are such kind, caring people to work with.

What would you say to someone thinking donating to Thames Valley Air Ambulance?

We rely solely on donations, they keep us going. It is only thanks to generous supporters like you that we are able to do what we do.