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Flying medics who can save lives on the spot

HELICOPTER paramedics had to make a split-second judgement yesterday on whether to perform open-heart surgery on the wounded policeman, writes Mary Braid.

Life and death decisions are commonplace for Greater London's Helicopter Emergency Medical Service, which attends an average of four 'trauma' incidents a day. In almost every case, the patient's life is in immediate danger.

A spokesman for the London Ambulance Service said that while open-heart surgery was rarely performed by the team, this was not the first time it had taken place.

'It is sad this patient did not survive but without the helicopter ambulance I am sure he would not have made it to hospital,' he said. 'The team, which always includes a qualified doctor and a paramedic, can do just about anything. The helicopter is like a mini-hospital.'

Yesterday's open-heart procedure involved the doctor opening up the police officer's chest wide enough to perform manual heart massage. A temporary repair was then made and a blood transfusion given. Treatment continued inside the helicopter but the police officer failed to respond on arrival at hospital.

A visit from the orange helicopter is now commonly referred to in the ambulance service as being 'tangoed'. The helicopter doctors boast they can reach any spot on the M25, London's ringroad, in under 10 minutes. 'In heavy traffic it can take an ambulance 40 minutes to reach some parts of the M25,' the ambulance service spokesman said.

The helicopter needs 25sq ft to land and since the service was launched in 1991 it has landed in Trafalgar Square and stopped the traffic in Oxford Circus. The service, based at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, east London, costs pounds 1,000 an hour.