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Ambulance Victoria picks up kidney transplant recipient from cruise with new AW139

Australian Ambulance Victoria is making use of new fleet of five AW139s to complete complex missions

Most people stepping on board a cruise ship would naturally assume they’d arrive at the destination of the ocean liner. But for Kathie, 40, her recent holiday took an unexpected but very welcome turn when Ambulance Victoria’s Air Ambulance Service was called in to pluck her off the ship and fly her to a hospital in time to receive an urgent kidney transplant. The New South Wales resident, who had waited seven years for a suitable kidney to be available, was somewhere in the Bass Strait enjoying day one of a Tasmania-bound cruise when she received a message on Facebook from her sister which changed her life.

An Ambulance Victoria AW139 over Albert Park Lake in Melbourne, Phot by John Eacott
An Ambulance Victoria AW139 over Albert Park Lake in Melbourne, Photo by John Eacott

Thankful that she had purchased on-board phone credit to receive the message, she was overwhelmed as she read the message which informed her that a kidney had become available – but she needed to act fast. She rushed to the medical center where she had planned to maintain her usual 18 hours of dialysis each week. Discussions with medical staff soon involved the captain and coast guard and immediate arrangements were made to help Air Ambulance perform a special winch to help make the transplant a reality.

‘Once we found out from the doctor that it was going ahead, he explained how it was going to happen…It was essentially getting winched off the ship, flown to land and then flown in a plane to Sydney,’ Kathie recalled. ‘It was so awesome. I was really excited about it, I wasn’t scared. It was exciting to know that I was getting a kidney and to see all the work behind it to make this happen for me. ‘I was just waiting, you know… I’ve been waiting for seven years. I couldn’t believe that the time had actually come.’

Arriving at the ship and hovering over the top deck, the Air Ambulance helicopter dropped MICA flight paramedic Toby St Clair down on to the ship. He met Kathie and prepared her for the winch into the helicopter and on to her life-changing journey. ‘We were quite excited to be involved. The crew was very happy to be involved and it was a huge effort from the Air Ambulance coordination team,’ Toby said. ‘We hoped that we could reach her in a viable time frame and we know that the cruise ship even turned around towards us to help us get to Kathie as quickly as possible.



Flight Paramedic Toby St. Clair and Kathie John, recipient of the flight and kidney transplant
Flight Paramedic Toby St. Clair and Kathie John, recipient of the flight and kidney transplant. Photo courtesy of Ambulance Victoria

‘We didn’t have a deadline for her transit but we needed to winch her off the ship, fly her to Bairnsdale where she had another flight leg through to Sydney before making it to hospital by road. ‘It was exciting that it was a very successful job and ended up having a wonderful outcome. The crew felt very privileged to be involved.’ Kathie arrived at the New South Wales hospital and underwent a successful transplant within hours. While she is recovering well from the transplant, she admits she looks back on the events which took place to get her a new kidney as ‘gobsmacking’. ‘It has completely changed my life because I can now live a normal life,’ Kathie said. ‘The whole thing was just amazing. Toby (MICA flight paramedic) was lovely and very calm. I felt like I was on a TV episode of a special operation.

‘I’d like to thank everyone who helped make my kidney transplant possible because really so many people were involved in making it happen and I also hope that it raises awareness on how important organ donation is.’

Ambulance Victoria, who recently acquired five Leonardo Helicopters AW139 aircraft that are run under contract by Babcock, who flies and maintains the helicopters and supplies a rescue crew member in the rear of the helicopter. Ambulance Victoria Air Ambulance rotary transport was previously provided in conjunction with Victoria Police, who operated two Victoria Police Airbus AS365N3 Dauphin helicopters that were also capable of conducting air ambulance missions in addition to three regionally based Bell 412ep’s serving regional Victoria. One of the Victoria Police helicopters was a dual purpose aircraft, sharing police and air ambulance duties as a backup aircraft, the other, VH-PVG was a dedicated air ambulance that could be used as a police aircraft if needed. The three regional Bell helicopters were operated under contract with service provider Australian Helicopters. That service coming to an end as the final AW139’s came online for Ambulance Victoria just a few weeks ago.

Ambulance Victoria AW139 in Bendigo. Photo courtesy Bendigo Advertiser
                                    Ambulance Victoria AW139 in Bendigo. Photo courtesy Bendigo Advertiser

Air Ambulance Victoria operates its emergency response helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft from four base locations in Victoria, Australia’s – Essendon, LaTrobe Valley, Bendigo and Warrnambool.  This ensures effective state coverage and for rural communities to have rapid access to the highest level of care and transport to major specialist care in the Melbourne metropolitan region.  Most helicopter work is pre-hospital time critical emergencies, which are often trauma and pediatric cases, with the balance mainly inter-hospital transfers (with a small amount of search and rescue, and transporting remote patients).

Air Ambulance Victoria helicopters are operated by a crew of three, consisting of a pilot, an air crewman provided by Babcock and a MICA Flight Paramedic. Babcock’s crew play a vital role in supporting the paramedics in their life-saving operations and are an instrumental part of the service to the community.  MICA Flight Paramedics are highly educated and experienced Intensive Care Paramedics who have advanced clinical knowledge, skills and a high level of physical fitness to ensure they are capable of undertaking this demanding role.  Babcock ensures that its pilots and crewmen maintain similar levels of skill and fitness to be able to assist the paramedics.  The crew have a one-team approach to supporting each other and rely on the highest level of trust and crew resource management to deliver a safe and effective service.

Since 2016, Babcock has supplied new state-of-the-art Leonardo Helicopters AW-139 twin engine helicopters, including a dedicated back-up aircraft to support the AAV operations. All helicopters are equipped with a rescue winch allowing the MICA flight Paramedic to be lowered into very remote places to rescue patients including bushland, boats and the ocean.

The new fleet provides a centralized model for all aircraft, standard fit-out and equipment to assist in streamlining training and operational processes for MICA flight paramedics, flight paramedics and crews. Babcock flies 10,000 hours per year across its fleet of 20 twin and single-engine turbine helicopters, from nine locations in South Australia, New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria.

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This story was compiled with assistance from Ambulance Victoria and Babcock International

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