We’re a small team... but we are ‘mighty’ says Cork-based Air Ambulance manager

COLETTE SHERIDAN talks to the manager of the Irish Community Air Ambulance, Karen O’Sullivan about her role, the service, and fundraising drives
We’re a small team... but we are ‘mighty’ says Cork-based Air Ambulance manager

Karen O'Sullivan, right, from Irish Community Air Ambulance, with Tesco Communications Director Rosemary Garth.

FROM its base at Rathcoole in north Cork, the Irish Community Air Ambulance primarily serves rural communities, mainly in the Munster region, doing vital work bringing critically ill and injured patients to the hospital that best suits their needs.

As manager of the service, Karen O’Sullivan, says, it is Ireland’s only charity-funded Helicopter Emergency Medical Service (HEMS). Tasked by the National Ambulance Service, it operates during daylight hours 365 days a year. (There are technical reasons why it can only function during daylight.)

The service benefits from the relaunched Tesco Community Fund which provides financial support to worthy causes and community groups. Tesco Ireland is calling on the local community groups of Cork to apply to become ‘One in a Million’, with €1million being made available to good causes across the country this year. It is focusing on community development, food, children and health.

Karen, an arts graduate of UCC originally from Ballinlough, worked with a number of brands in the corporate sector before deciding she wanted to work for a good cause. She worked in fund- raising for the Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind for a year and a half.

“Then, unfortunately, the pandemic hit and changes were made to the fund-raising team,” says Karen.

“It was a great organisation to work for.”

Wanting to continue working in the charity sector, Karen replied to an advertisement for a job with the air ambulance and started working there just before Christmas.

“No two days are the same. I do everything from corporate fund- raising to applying for grants. We’re a small team so we all pitch in where we can. I also look after things like the website and I do some social media.

“My role is quite varied but I like that. Fundraising is the main part of my role. It’s about getting the word out there to companies that might be able to support us throughout the year.”

Companies have been “very generous” she said.

“We established HEMS in 2019 so we’re still quite fresh-faced. People in the community are also generous to us, particularly those who have witnessed the air ambulance at work. Some have done some great fund-raisers for us,” said Karen.

Having been launched just before the pandemic, it has been difficult.

The Irish Community Air Ambulance is based in Rathcoole in North Cork.
The Irish Community Air Ambulance is based in Rathcoole in North Cork.

Karen said: “It has been tough, as it has been for all other charities, but the local community and the Tesco initiative are the reasons we’re doing what we’re doing.”

The Air Ambulance is tasked by the National Ambulance Service from Rathcoole.

Karen said: “What we do best is speed. Our helicopter can reach a 25 square km radius in under 3- minutes. Timing is everything. If we need to transfer a patient from Kerry to CUH, we can do that quite quickly.

“It’s not just getting the patient to the nearest hospital but we can transfer them to the one that best suits their needs, be it cardiac arrest, stroke, traffic accidents or farming-related accidents.

“The service is for people who can’t reach a hospital quickly. It might take a few hours by land to get to the nearest hospital.”

Where does the helicopter land?

“I often chat to the pilot about this. Obviously it’s very technical. We’ve had some locations that were generously (allocated to us) such as GAA clubs or anywhere local where it’s possible to land, where it’s safe and near (to the patient).”

The air ambulance has national ambulance service staff on board. This is made up of advanced paramedics and emergency medical technicians.

“The best possible staff are on board. They can intervene in an emergency at the side of the road and potentially save lives. Sometimes, there is a sad outcome. But our mission is to bring hope. We can bring the potential of hope and comfort to a family. There are some amazing stories.”

Karen cites the case of a family from Valentia in Co Kerry. Pat and Cathy O’Sullivan’s eight-year-old son, Padraig, fell off his bike, under the wheels of a truck.

“It was a very frightening situation but we were able to transfer him to hospital and he was able to get the care he needed.

“Thankfully he was wearing a helmet. He is doing quite well. It was a serious accident.

“The advanced paramedics were very reassuring to Padraig during the emergency. We’re proud of what the team did.”

The service currently has five critical doctors volunteering for the charity.

“They operate on the ground in rapid response vehicles. They attend at scenes of medical emergencies where they can intervene and, hopefully, make life-saving changes to a person in an emergency.

“In line with our strategic ambition, we want to expand and enhance that service in rural communities across Ireland.

“So the Tesco Community Fund is really going to come into play for us because it is local communities that we’re looking to, to expand that service.”

The air ambulance charity has a small core team. As well as Karen, there is another person on the fund-raising team.

“We have a CEO and a few more staff members. There are six or seven paid staff. And we have volunteer firefighters working at our base.

“It is quite a small operation but significant, ‘small but mighty’ as I like to say.”

Tesco’s ‘improved’ Community Fund initiative sees the return of the familiar blue tokens that are now made from recyclable materials.

“Each time a customer shops in a Tesco store, they can vote for their preferred cause to receive funding using the tokens. At the end of the 12-week campaign, votes are counted and up to €2,000 is shared between three local groups. Since 2014, the Tesco Community Fund has donated over €6 million to over 21,000 local community projects, nationwide.

Last year, Karen says that the air ambulance service received €4,500 from the Tesco fund.

“The cost of one of our taskings, a call-out, is €3,500. That includes everything from fuel and staff to the running costs at the base. It is quite a significant cost. A donation like what we got from Tesco last year is very significant for making things happen.”

So get voting. You never know when you or a family member might need the services of the air ambulance.

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