Patient Jacqueline Olver with (l to r) Obi Agu, consultant vascular surgeon and John Yap, consultant cardiac sugeon.
A ruptured aortic aneurysm meant the 46-year-old mother-of-two needed to be flown to The Heart Hospital, part of University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (UCLH), for emergency medical care.
Thanks to a Royal Navy Sea King helicopter, from HMS Gannet at Prestwick in Ayrshire, Jacqueline was one of the few passengers to take to the skies on that day. It was a journey that would ultimately save her life.
“If she hadn’t been able to fly here she would not have survived. The ash cloud could have killed her. Being able to fly into a centre, which is a world leader in treating this particular condition, saved her life,” said John Yap, consultant cardiac surgeon at The Heart Hospital, from where Jacqueline was discharged back home this week.
Jacqueline, 46 of Fife, Scotland, had a highly complex aortic aneurysm, a condition when the main vessel that supplies blood to the rest of the body becomes dangerously large.
Her situation became life-threatening in the early hours of April 14 when the aneurysm ruptured into her chest. This was complicated by the fact that Jacqueline had suffered a previous aneurysm which nearly cost her life 13 years ago.
The Scottish Ambulance Service took her to the Prestwick base where she was transferred to the Sea King at 6am.
“It was a bit of a strange day,” explained Lieutenant Al Hinchcliffe, pilot and duty aircraft captain. “We were a little bit ahead of the mayhem which was to ensue when the whole of UK airspace closed, so it’s not like the skies were eerily quiet, but we were aware, too, of the emerging threat posed by the volcano, as well as the fact that our passenger was exceptionally ill.
“We just flew as fast as we could and hoped that we would get her there safely. We were radio-ing ahead to air traffic controllers to get them to clear air space for us all the way down, which is quite unusual. Obviously we didn’t want anything to hold us up.
“I’m absolutely delighted to hear that she’s safe and well and has made a good recovery – it’s always nice to hear about a positive result.”
The Sea King does not normally fly to London, but despite the huge distance the helicopter landed in Regent’s Park shortly before 9am.
A waiting ambulance then took Jacqueline to University College Hospital, from where she was transferred to the nearby Heart Hospital for specialist cardiac care due to the severity of her condition.
Here she was treated by the UCLH Cardiovascular Team, including Mr Yap, Peter Harris, professor of endovascular surgery and Obi Agu, consultant vascular surgeon.
“When she came to us she was extremely sick – dying basically,” said Mr Yap.
“In order to repair the rupture we had to stop her circulation completely – a technique known as circulatory arrest. Jacqueline was clinically ‘dead’ for 19 minutes before we restored her circulation.”
Jacqueline has a history of problems with her aorta, and had an ‘acute type a dissection’ and almost died 13 years ago when she was carrying triplets. Two of her babies survived, after being delivered prematurely. Jacqueline spent six weeks in a coma.
Just hours before being flown home to her family by air ambulance, Jacqueline said: “I would have died if they hadn’t got me here. It’s amazing to think that a volcano in Iceland could have had such an affect.
“I can’t remember anything and was totally amazed when people told me the story about what had happened. It makes me realise how lucky I am to be alive.”
Her daughters Kirtsen and Lauren, now 13, visited her two weeks after her treatment. Jacqueline added: “They just started crying with happiness when they saw me. I’m just so glad to be alive.”