In part one of his story, former patient Spencer tells us about his life-changing accident and his remarkable recovery.
Despite some of the riskier missions he undertook as an RAF Pilot, the biggest threat to former patient Spencer’s life came in the form of a cycling accident in 2019.
As he cycled downhill at speed, Spencer collided with a car that was pulling out from a junction. Having punctured both of his lungs, Spencer was in urgent need of advanced critical care. Doctor Stewart, part of the team who treated Spencer, said that he was ‘the sickest patient he had ever seen who had gone on to survive and thrive.’
Reflecting back on his incident, Spencer said:
‘The car pulled out and I remembered hitting it, but I couldn’t remember any pain. I next remember being on the side of the road on all fours, holding a lady’s hand from the other car at the junction. I could barely breathe, and I kept saying I was dying. As it turns out, both my lungs were punctured, and I was getting very little oxygen into my body. I genuinely believed I was dying, because as much as I tried to breathe, I was not getting any progress. The lady holding my hand kept reassuring me that I was not dying, and I remember a road ambulance turning up. The road ambulance had a Thames Valley Air Ambulance paramedic on board, accompanying them for a shift.’
‘I remember them cutting my cycling kit off and making me lie down, but I remembered nothing else until waking up in the ICU. In those intervening two hours, I was attended to by the Thames Valley Air Ambulance helicopter and the amazing doctors and paramedics that saved my life.’
‘The care I received following that, particularly in the ten days in the ICU, was amazing. I was coming on and off a ventilator, went through surgery and had many other difficulties at the start of a long, painful journey to recovery. This journey started with Thames Valley Air Ambulance and would not have happened without Doctor Stewart and Critical Care Paramedic Ben. I owe my life to them.’
Thames Valley Air Ambulance’s roadside intervention:
‘All of the team on scene saved my life at the side of the road, by effectively operating on me at the roadside. They fitted drains to my chest to allow the pressure to stabilise and get oxygen into my body.’
‘After talking to hospital doctors, I realised that medical experiences from Afghanistan and Iraq had taught that it is better to operate on the roadside or in a ‘dirty’ environment to save life, and to worry about infection later. I feel like if I had been taken by a land ambulance alone, I wouldn’t have survived a trip to the hospital. Applying oxygen to my face through a mask would not have functioned. The normal paramedics in the land ambulance wouldn’t have had the requisite qualifications to carry out the roadside operation that Thames Valley Air Ambulance did, and I absolutely believe that I owe my life to them.’
‘I kind of assumed, wrongly, that the air ambulance was a bit of a ‘lift and shift’ type organisation, arriving at the scene of the incident, a bit like a road ambulance, scraping the casualty up and whisking them away to a hospital somewhere. Obviously that does happen and is part of what happens on a land and air ambulance, but I was a bit gobsmacked that there was the capability from the doctor and paramedics to be able to operate on the side of the road – the level of care that is provided is pretty amazing.’
Spencer’s remarkable recovery:
‘I remember when I first woke up, it was bizarre. I just assumed that good things happen and that I would walk away from the accident. When I was in hospital the next day, I came round and saw my wife. I was due to ride a hundred-mile sporting event on the Sunday. I said to Vicki, my wife, “tell Graham I’ll just do 50 miles tomorrow.” At first, I didn’t realise I was very hurt, and she told me that I had been airlifted. With my aviation background, my first reaction was to be sorry at missing out on the airlift, I thought that would be cool to experience. That was the first time I realised Thames Valley Air Ambulance were involved.’
‘When Vicki drove me home [from hospital], I asked her to take me up the road I had crashed on. She said to me that I had been on the side of the road for two hours – she had been there the whole time, as there are emergency tags on the back of my bike, and she was called to the scene quickly. It was only then that I knew I had been attended by the air ambulance and other medical staff for hours, and realised the seriousness of what happened.’
‘Now it’s a year and almost three months later, and there are residual things that are not quite right, and some of that will be permanent. Even then, I consider myself to be unbelievably lucky on so many accounts. There are so many reasons why that incident could’ve killed me.’
‘I was lucky that there was a Thames Valley Air Ambulance paramedic on duty with the land ambulance, who was able to administer care that I wouldn’t be able to receive from a standard paramedic. Then, someone had made the assessment to call the air ambulance, which did its thing and arrived in time to operate on the side of the road and save me. I’m lucky on so many counts to still be here.’
‘I was offered a chance to come to Stokenchurch HQ, to meet with the Patient Liaison Manager and some of the staff at the charity. When I left Stokenchurch, I kind of broke down a little bit and was a bit of a mess, because it suddenly dawned on me that I had nearly died. It was very, very close to death. I then realised I wanted to do something to give back, but also to say thank you, and cycling was the obvious thing.’
A year on after his accident, Spencer took part in a 100-mile cycle with a couple of his friends to fundraise for Thames Valley Air Ambulance:
‘For me, personally, it drew a line under the incident. It was a year on. I’ve done 100-mile cycle rides a few times before. It’s funny, people who don’t cycle in the way that I do think 100 miles is amazing, so I played on that to maximise the donations. But It’s not very difficult. All of my cycling buddies, when I told them about my 100-mile ride and they saw it on Strava, were a bit underwhelmed, because it’s not an amazingly difficult achievement!’
‘But for me, it was a really important anniversary because it said to me and my family that I was back to where I was before. Even though there are residual things wrong with my body, I was back to where I was before in terms of what I could do. So, I built up to it in a way that I knew I could cycle 100 miles. It then took me 5 or 6 hours on the day on quite a hot day, with a couple of buddies. But I felt great afterwards. It felt amazing, because it felt like drawing a line under the stuff that happened to me a year ago.’
‘I counted on support from friends, family and the cycling community to raise a bit of cash. I’m keen to keep doing stuff. The job that the air ambulance do is unbelievable.’
‘Obviously, Thames Valley Air Ambulance is incredibly important to me, and the job that all of the air ambulances do is amazing. Totally amazing. It’s amazing as well because it isn’t government-funded. I know a bit from my aviation background how difficult it is to get an aircraft in the air, and all of the engineering, maintenance, crew, operations, and medical team. It’s all incredibly difficult to get that helicopter in the air without any government funding. It’s staggering, really, when you think about that. It’s something that I’ll continue to try and help and promote.’
Read part two of Spencer’s story, as told by Critical Care Paramedic Ben who was part of the crew treating him that day.
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