Alongside a highly trained and experienced critical care team at the Great Western Air Ambulance Charity (GWAAC), who bring hospital-level treatment outside to a patient in need, many more lives have been saved with the help of the Freewheelers, also known as ‘Blood Bikers’.
The Freewheelers are a team of 120 fundraisers and bikers who volunteer to deliver life-saving blood products to the GWAAC every single day of the year, to ensure that people in emergencies outside hospital receive the best possible care.
The year 2018 marks a decade since the GWAAC took to the skies for the first time. It’s no secret that they have saved countless lives across Bristol and the South West, and the work of the Freewheelers only helps to increase the numbers.
As treasurer of the Freewheelers and the first female blood biker, Mel Rowbottom collects boxes of blood products from Southmead Hospital every evening and delivers them to the GWAAC, and she constantly sees the benefits of the Freewheelers. Mel assures that there’s no wasted blood, and any unused products get taken back to the blood bank at Southmead Hospital and put (literally) back into circulation, which doesn’t cost the NHS a penny.
“During the day, Southmead Hospital will take quantities out that we need to deliver that’s kept at very low temperatures, and we collect them around 6:30pm, bring them to the GWAAC and they stay in the box untouched unless the team need to use them later on,” says Mel.
“If they stay sealed for the 24-hour period, the following evening when we deliver the next night’s supply we’ll take the old boxes back to Southmead Hospital and they’ll put them back into the blood bank to be used somewhere else around the hospital. It goes full circle – nothing is wasted, lives have been saved and there’s always a box available for the crew to use on the aircraft.”
Blood products have been consistently delivered to the GWAAC for the last year and a half, and the air ambulance charity put these blood products to use over 80 times in 2017 alone.
James Yates, a specialist paramedic in critical care, and Dr Richard Jeavons, a critical care doctor, both see first-hand the impact that the Freewheelers have on the standard of care that the GWAAC provides. “To contextualise it, trauma is the leading cause of death around the world within certain age groups, and within trauma the major cause of death is bleeding, so for us to be able to give blood to those patients who have lost a lot of blood is essential.” he says.
“The benefits of the Freewheelers are that the blood is arriving at virtually the same time every evening – it’s picked up, it’s collected, and it’s taken away,” adds Richard. “There’s a very clear, easy structure for us to follow and the consistency means that we can train knowing that it’s here, and the blood is changed every day so we don’t have to worry about things going out of date.
“The system works all the time, every time, and it’s a superb service.”
However, both James and Richard remember a time when the GWAAC didn’t have blood products to give patients, proving how much the care given by the air ambulance charity has improved with the help of the Freewheelers.
James comments: “Before we were giving something which was effectively just water, which was good at increasing the volume of fluid that was going around the patient’s body, but it wasn’t the fluid that they needed.”
“The body needs something that can carry oxygen, and so not only the blood but the associated blood products that we now carry are much more like the normal body state,” assures Richard. “Therefore patients will be getting the best treatment much quicker at the roadside, and it has been shown to have improved the mortality.”
The GWAAC crew work tirelessly to ensure the safety of all their patients, and as the busiest air ambulance charity in the country outside London, the number of people that they treat outside hospitals is constant:
“We have one shift from 7am to 7pm, and one from 1am to 1pm, and over that period we see on average four patients a day,” explains James. “That might not seem that much, but 99 per cent of the jobs we go to support the ambulance service.
“The ambulance will turn up and the paramedics will do a fantastic job, then we will supplement the standard ambulance response with the critical care level of clinical intervention. So for those four patients a day who are seriously unwell or injured and require a full critical care team, that’s quite a lot of people.”
Many of the patients that require critical care from the GWAAC are often treated at the roadside, and the critical care team are no strangers to accidents involving cyclists and bikers:
“It’s incredibly easy for a collision to happen,” says Richard. “It’s often road traffic collisions that cause trauma, and a significant percentage of those involve bikers. Bristol also has a high student population who use a lot of push bikes because of traffic, and unfortunately those are the two groups that tend to come off worse in any collisions.”
Mel, who is an accountant for BT by day as well as a Freewheeler by night, knows the risks and dangers of a motorbike accident. To be a Freewheeler involves being an advanced rider, and due to wanting to better her riding skills after having an accident herself, Mel completed her advanced rider training in 2003 and became a Freewheeler in 2008.
But her motorbike accident years ago isn’t the only reason why Mel became a Freewheeler:
“Ultimately, everybody does it because they love motorcycles, they love riding them and it’s also about putting a good image back into the public,” she says. “Everybody talks about motorcyclists, but everybody who is a motorcyclist will also either drive a car, ride a pushbike, have a family, or have a nice job somewhere.
“There’s a whole multitude of people out there who are doing something good and putting a positive image back into the biker community. The other incentive at the time was that it was all male riders in the charity, so I thought ‘there’s a target there’, and I muscled my way in to be the first female blood biker in the area.
“We also promote the air ambulance, which is why we do what we do – to help save lives,” Mel continues. “Although we have a Bristol base we also have one in Bath and Taunton, so we’re always encouraging motorcyclists to come on board and help cover all those hospitals, and hospices too.
“We’re a diverse charity, we’ve got people from all walks of life – police officers to surgeons to retired people. You never know who you’re talking to and what experiences they’ve got, so it’s a really good social network from that point of view.”
Currently, there’s around 35 blood biker groups across the country, but that by no means makes Mel’s workload as a Freewheeler any lighter:
“We have four operational bikes that work during the week, 7pm to 7am, and then on weekends from 7pm on the Friday night through to 7am on the Monday morning, on a 24/7 basis. We have a free phone number for all the hospitals and hospices to dial into, and a coordinator and telephone operator, who decide which rider is the best fit to do the job.
“But the key thing for us is when the hospital phones up, will it actually fit on a bike? It has to be something that is operationally safe for us to carry, and it means we can get through traffic easier. We can also carry surgical equipment, frozen breast milk between all the neonatal centres, controlled drugs for hospices and special baby food.”
Everyone in the Freewheelers is a fundraiser, therefore every member contributes back into the charity allowing it to run like clockwork, and out of the charity’s 120 members, around 70 of them are bike riders.
As well as the four bikes in operation, the charity also have a spare set of bikes due to the vast mileage that the riders do. Every year across the fleet of operational bikes is equivalent to seven times around the world, which just shows the vast amount of routine trips that the Freewheelers take delivering delicate, live-saving products to the air ambulance.
As if Mel doesn’t volunteer enough of her time to the Blood Bikers, she is also one of the organisers of the GWAAC’s third annual ride out, taking place on Sunday July 15. The event gives the public a chance to see who the Freewheelers are, as they are generally unseen due to making their rounds at night.
As a result of the number of road traffic collisions that are attended by the GWAAC, the ride outs unite riders and highlight safety issues as a biker, and some riders taking part may have been patients that the air ambulance charity have saved.
Mel is leading the ride out this year, controlling the 300+ bikers who turn up on the day. She also chooses and tests the route that they take, gathers marshalls to signpost every turn so all the riders get round safely, and make sure that people have fun.
“It’s really fun because people stop and wave as you’re going along,” says Mel. “And because you’re promoting the air ambulance they can see why you’re doing it and hopefully encourage more people to get involved.
“You get a variety of different riders and everybody is in it for one purpose, which is really nice.”
It costs around £120,000 per year to run the Freewheelers, with £15,000 of it going towards running the GWAAC. All contributions made to the Freewheelers go into running the bikes, and next weekend’s ride out is free entry and open to all.
“It doesn’t matter if you don’t ride,” assures Mel. “There’s lots of activities on the day for family and friends, so come and have a good time and support your local charities.”
For more information about the Freewheelers and next weekend’s ride out, visit www.freewheelers.org.uk/ or www.ride4gwaac.com/