Epic chopper rescue

When St John Ambulance Critical Care Paramedic Ben Harris turned up to start his shift, little did he know that he would soon be involved in one of the most remote and challenging aeromedical retrievals since the Rescue Helicopter service commenced operations in 2003.

At 2pm on 6 November, a request came in from Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) regarding an injured sailor on a fishing boat in Israelite Bay, 114 nautical miles east of Esperance. Esperance Volunteer Marine Rescue, with St John Community Paramedic Paul Gaughan on board, had attempted a rescue effort but was forced to turn back due to high swells.

The task was given to the Jandakot RAC Rescue Helicopter team who deployed for Esperance immediately. The crew were racing the clock, needing to refuel at Esperance before flying out to sea to complete the rescue before the light faded.

The helicopter rendezvoused with the vessel 15 nautical miles east of Daw Island in Israelite Bay, 230 kilometres east of Esperance and St John Critical Care Paramedic Ben Harris was winched down to the vessel in the four-five metre swell.

Ben talks about the challenging winch rescue:

“This was my first active direct vessel winch and it was done under extremely challenging circumstances with a fairly sick patient.

Four to five metre seas were running when we got to the vessel, 20-25 knot winds were howling, and last light was approaching fast. The time to complete the whole rescue was very limited, as we cannot winch to vessels after last light. It was clearly conveyed to me by the pilot that I literally had minutes to get on the deck of the boat, package the patient and retrieve him.

We completed a few circuits around the vessel as it was smashing through the waves and found the site that was my target to winch to, which wasn’t much larger than roughly 2m2 . To get me on the deck took a few attempts, some brilliant timing from the crewman to lower me down between swells and some exceptional flying from the helicopter pilot.

Once on the deck, my job truly started. The patient had suffered severe lower leg injuries with large volume blood loss that required tourniquet application and some quick splinting and packaging. The captain of the vessel and I then managed to drag him to the back corner of the vessel and we were retrieved back up to the helicopter via the winch.

En route to Esperance the patient required the two units of packed red blood cells that we have had as part of our formulary now for a number of months.

Eventually, I handed the patient over to RFDS at the Esperance Airport where he received two more units of blood and had a much quicker flight back up to Perth than what we could have achieved.

This was a unique job that required a massive team effort from the beginning. It involved multiple agencies for it all to come together and for us to be able to carry out the rescue in the limited time we had available.

From the AMSA coordination centre in Canberra, to SOC, DFES aviation services and Esperance Volunteer Marine Rescue, the ambulance volunteers that helped me at the Esperance Airport, right down to the Esperance Pub for the amazing steak sandwich late that night, everyone went above and beyond and played a part in the job.”