Aviation Nursing

Agency nursing itself can offer a different experience for nurses in comparison to working full time for the NHS or a private trust. Our nurses tell us that they have chosen to work agency shifts because they get the chance to meet new people, work in a variety of settings and further their skills and experience by learning from others. But what about working outside of traditional hospital settings? We spoke Julie, a Thornbury Nurse who has worked as a flight nurse since 2004.

“Hi, I’m Julie, I’m a Thornbury nurse doing something a little bit different.

Since 2004 I’ve been a flight nurse, travelling around the world on both air ambulances and commercial airlines, bringing patients home to the UK and accompanying patients back to their homes overseas.

I first heard about flight nursing back in 2003; I was working an agency shift for Thornbury in Bristol. A patient from Spain was admitted to A&E and he was accompanied by a flight nurse who I began talking to. Her job sounded amazing and I couldn’t get it out of my head so I did some research and signed up for an inflight nursing module at Glenside University. I completed the course and started working for a flight medical company, where I was classed as an acute flight nurse due to my A&E background. I repatriated patients with a variety of cardiac, respiratory and cerebral vascular conditions as well as patients with fractured femurs, spinal injuries and water sport injuries.

Fast forward 12 years and I have travelled all over the world: Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Brazil, Canada, the Caribbean and across Europe. It’s quite common for people to become ill or injured whilst overseas and unable to speak the local language. It’s a scary situation and my patients are often anxious, wondering how they’re ever going to get home. My job is to take away their anxiety and bring them home safely. The hours can be long and tiring, especially when travelling across time zones with patients requiring constant care. I’ve developed the confidence necessary to secure the best care and speak up for my patients’ safety and wellbeing, as well as an awareness of the laws and the culture of the countries I visit.

I’ve experienced many challenges: oxygen not available on board, flight tickets not paid for, patients in the wrong hospital, transport not turning up as scheduled or not at all, patients deteriorating pre, during or post flight are but a few to mention. However, I have 24/7 support from my company via a mobile phone and Medilink is also available if a patient deteriorates during a flight. I know first-hand that no matter how well a pre-travel assessment goes, a patient can deteriorate at any time.

I currently work for a company based in Exeter doing lots of air ambulance work, often working alongside a doctor or a medical team. Depending on my work schedule, I usually get two days’ rest on long-haul jobs and, depending on my flight plan, up to 12 hours’ rest on short haul flights (this varies greatly). I work on my own a lot, but there can be cases that need two nurses, for example, immobile patients on long haul flights.

I absolutely love my job; caring for patients who are always so thankful to see me and appreciative of the care I give them. It is very hard work, the hours are long but it’s also very rewarding. If I’d have known this was the career I’d end up following, I would’ve studied languages at school but hindsight is a wonderful thing! You spend the majority of your life at work so it’s very important to love what you do.

So what skills have I learnt from being a flight nurse? To think ahead and be well prepared to leave at short notice – think medical equipment, documents, passports, visas. I’ve learnt to be much more assertive in order to get the best for my patients. I’ve also learnt to have patience and keep calm, your patients will likely be anxious and stressed as it is.

I have been approached by many nurses who are fascinated by my job. I always stress that this line of work involves being away from home and family for up to five days at a time, even more if a problem occurs. Often you have no idea when you’ll return home. But if you can work around this, are comfortable working alone and are prepared to leave at short notice then it’s the most fabulous, rewarding, challenging and exciting job I know.

Thanks for listening to my story – I hope you enjoyed it.

Julie, Thornbury Flight Nurse

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