‘I met neighbours by landing in their back garden’: Cork air ambulance pilot on how his work can bring him anywhere

In the third and final part of our series, Sarah Horgan talks to air ambulance pilot Donnagh Verling about the immense satisfaction he gets from helping to save lives
‘I met neighbours by landing in their back garden’: Cork air ambulance pilot on how his work can bring him anywhere

In the third and final part of our series, Sarah Horgan talks to air ambulance pilot Donnagh Verling about the immense satisfaction he gets from helping to save lives.

LANDING a helicopter in a stranger’s garden wouldn’t be regarded as the most traditional way to meet your neighbours.

However, for air ambulance pilot Donnagh Verling it was an introduction he will likely never forget.

Having worked as a pilot with the Irish Aircorp before a period as a flying instructor in Oman in the Middle East he returned home with his family and landed a position with the Irish Community Air Ambulance in West Cork.

Donnagh never imagined his flying could be used to make such an impact in his hometown of Clonakilty. The West Cork man hasn’t looked back since and shed light on some of his highlights since joining the service in 2019.

He recalled one rescue in particular that sparked curiosity among locals.

“One time I landed in my neighbours back garden 100 metres from my house,” he said. 

“A man had an accident involving a horse and required urgent assistance. Two of the guys were slagging me asking ‘have you forgotten your lunch?’

“The man’s wife was just standing there asking ‘why are you talking to the pilot like that?’.

“They introduced me as Donnagh and explained that I had moved in down the road. Most people meet their neighbours by calling around for a coffee. I, on the other hand, landed in their back garden in a helicopter.”

                 Air ambulance pilot Donnagh Verling. Picture: Anna Verling.

The ICAA, formerly Irish Community Rapid Response is based in Rathcoole in County Cork and works in tandem with the National Ambulance Service to provide both paramedic support and transport to hospital for seriously ill patients.

Donnagh said he is lucky to be working in a job that he loves.

“I’m from Clonakilty originally and when the children reached secondary school level I knew that I wanted to come home,” he said.

“When I heard about the air ambulance I knew it would be very convenient. I do something I enjoy and get paid for it. The older I get the more I realise this isn’t something everybody has. The paramedics and national ambulance service guys are the ones who do all the worthwhile work. I just get them where they need to go. While it’s an unusual way to travel from most people’s perspective I’m not that different to anybody else. I’m just lucky that I ended up doing something that I like.”

Knowing that he is saving lives gives Donnagh immense job satisfaction.

“I did search and rescue in the military. During that period there would have been a lot of hospital transfers and air ambulance missions. You get to a stage where the thrill of just flying isn’t enough anymore and you need to do something worthwhile.

“I’m not as excited about physically getting into an aircraft and flying anymore. I enjoy the fact that when I do go flying I am providing a level of assistance to people who need it. I don’t think anyone is under any illusions that every time we go out we are saving somebody’s life. However, it’s nice to know that we are making a difference.”

He described how the service is making a difference.

“There are a number of jobs that would not have had a positive outcome without us,” he said.

“That person would have died if everything hadn’t fallen into place. There was a person who had a cardiac arrest and their mum was able to render first aid.

“The air ambulance happened to be close by and fortuitously those pieces fell into place for that person. There have been a number of jobs like that. We are just one of a number of the parts that fall into place.”

One of the most rewarding parts of the job for Donnagh is the gratitude from former patients.

“When someone collapses on the side of the road the first thing they usually remember is waking up in hospital. They don’t know if they have been brought there by helicopter, an ambulance or a passer-by in a Volvo, nor do they care. 

"However, we do get a lot of thank you cards afterwards. They’ll remember members of the crew specifically because they would have been talking to them in the back of the aircraft.”

He said there are certain moments that reinforce the heartbreaking side of his job.

“It’s the little things that get you. This could be as minor as seeing someone with the same car as yours in the driveway. The things you can relate to make it even harder. Dealing with kids is particularly difficult because you don’t want to see them in pain. It makes you think of your own children.”

Donnagh also acknowledged the resilience of the people they help.

“Some days we are doing four jobs a day and there are 500 calls a year. However, there are the cases that stand out, I’ve landed within 500 metres of my house and carried my first cousin’s kid in the back in the back of the aircraft.

“The mum of a kid who was injured got over her fear of flying after coming with us in the helicopter so she could be with her child. At that point, her maternal instincts overrode any fear she had of being in the air.”

ICAA figures revealed that the crew was tasked to 127 incidents across nine counties during the first three months of 2021.

The figures represent a 21% increase compared to the same period last year where they facilitated 105 call outs.

Figures from the ICAA show that March was the single busiest month since the start of the year, with the Air Ambulance being tasked a total of 47 times.

There were 41 missions in February and 39 in January.

Cardiac arrests account for the most incidents, with a total of 32 taskings between January and the end of March.

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