These were also called ‘Prem runs’, as they dealt with premature births, or ‘Incubator runs’, as they involved carrying an incubator in the ambulance. This is not a story that stretches credibility, or makes you afraid of losing your breakfast. Neither is it humourous, or likely to make you feel sad, or upset. It is simply informative, dealing with a side of working for the LAS, that was unknown to me before I started, and almost certainly unknown to everyone else too, before they started making so many TV shows about the NHS.
SCBU is a simple acronym for ‘Special Care Baby Unit.’ Most large hospitals have had one, since the 1970’s. However, they were rarely able to provide the specialist care needed when serious complications arose, such as heart defects, and other conditions requiring surgery on these tiny newborns. In these instances, it was necessary to transfer the baby, or sometimes the still pregnant mother, to a hospital that could assist. In London and the Home Counties, this would preferably be Great Ormond Street, St. Mary’s, or The Hammersmith Hospital. All of these destinations were within our area of operations, so I rapidly became familiar with these jobs.
The process was long-winded. You had to go to the hospital in London first, where you would collect a team, of two or three, (sometimes four) nurses and doctors, with all their equipment. The incubator would be mounted on an ambulance trolley bed, and this meant that you had to leave one of yours behind. Despite ordering the job as an emergency, you could always guarantee a minimum of an hour’s delay, hanging around, whilst they prepared their stuff, or waited for suitably skilled staff to arrive. The incubator and trolley bed combination, together with associated monitoring equipment, as well as a large integral oxygen supply, was incredibly heavy. It was often all we could do, to manage to lift the thing up the two steps into the vehicle. Once everything, and everyone was loaded aboard, we had to head off, blue lights and sirens all the way, to somewhere like Watford, Hitchin, or Stevenage. This involved a journey of about 25 miles, across London first, then using motorways where possible. Invariably, they would order these jobs at the worst possible times, early evening, or mid-morning, and they would therefore coincide with the heaviest traffic. The accompanying team were normally quite excited at the prospect of this long run, swerving and weaving in and out of traffic, siren wailing. However, after a short time confined in the back, with visibility limited, and unable to see forward through the cab, they would usually become travel sick, and sorry that they were there.
Once we arrived at the destination hospital, we would hurry up to the maternity unit, or to the SCBU, if the baby was already born. To a large extent, that was our job done, and we would then have to wait, until the team was ready to return the stabilised baby back to London. This could be a very long wait. I cannot ever recall it being less than three hours, and it sometimes stretched to six or seven. I remember one night duty, being at a hospital from just after midnight, until 8am, before they were ready to leave. Once they were sure that they could safely make the move, the process was reversed, this time with the baby on board. If the mother was to accompany the infant, she would be taken in a separate vehicle, provided by the local County Service. These babies are incredibly small. If you have never seen one close up, it is hard to describe just how tiny they are; think of a normal sized newborn, then halve it, at the very least. Our job was exactly the same, but in reverse order; we had no input into the treatment, and we were required to do no more than both sit in the front, with one driving. We would plough through the traffic back to London, wheel the incubator back to the ward, or theatre, then collect our original trolley bed, and we were free to go.
There could be a few of these running simultaneously, from various hospitals. Two fully trained staff, one fully-equipped vehicle, completely unavailable for ambulance duties, for most, or all, of the shift. Speaking personally, and on behalf of some others whose opinions I knew at the time, we did not think that was what we were there for. On reflection, the baby was seriously ill, or would not have been getting such intensive care, and specialist treatment, so it was probably more justified than all the other calls we might have done that shift. But it wasn’t what we joined for, providing transport, with no involvement.
I understand that they now have dedicated vehicles for these runs, provided by companies other than the regular ambulance service. Good idea, I reckon.