New all-night response unit proving its MERIT

New all-night response unit proving its MERIT

AN all-night rapid response car staffed by air ambulance medics is saving lives across the North-East, according to those behind the service.

The Great North Air Ambulance Service (GNAAS) and North East Ambulance Service (NEAS) have teamed up to provide a doctor-led trauma team to cover the hours of darkness – when the charity’s air ambulances do not fly.

The region’s first Medical Emergency Response Incident Team (MERIT) responds to incidents in a specially equipped car, staffed by GNAAS doctors and paramedics and funded by NEAS.

Under Department of Health guidance, ambulance services throughout the country are now required to provide a MERIT service to ensure a doctor-led response is available around-the-clock for the most seriously injured or ill patients.

In daylight hours, this service is provided by the air ambulance and crew. When night falls, a fresh GNAAS crew transfers to a rapid response vehicle which carries all the same life-saving equipment as its airborne counterpart.

The team works on Friday and Saturday nights from locations across the region, with an on-call service operational in the event of a major incident on Sundays through Thursdays.

The team began work on a trial basis in April last year. A report published by GNAAS this week shows that the MERIT service responded to 420 calls and treated 233 patients in that time.

The team has attended incidents all across the North-East. Most cases have been in urban areas such as Newcastle, Durham, Darlington and Middlesbrough, with shootings, stabbings and serious trauma road traffic accidents some of the types of incident attended so far.

The crew has also performed the first thoracotomy to take place outside of a hospital in the region. This is an extremely advanced operation where the doctor opens the patient’s chest to gain access to their heart or lungs. This is a procedure reserved for critical cases such as stabbings and shootings.

Grahame Pickering MBE, chief executive at GNAAS, said: “Before we started this service there was no trauma team available after the aircraft finished work for the day.

“Now, we are able to perform blood and plasma transfusions, administer anaesthetic and perform surgery on scene. It’s making a real difference and giving patients a chance where previously they wouldn’t have had one.”

Chief Operating Officer from NEAS, Paul Liversidge, said, “Working closely with partners GNAAS we have been able to make a real difference to critically ill patients using this scheme when there may not have otherwise been the same access to such enhanced care.” 

Andy Mawson, deputy director of operations at GNAAS, said the service was reliant on a strong working relationship between the charity and NEAS.

“The key to this is the call-handlers in ambulance control,” he said. “Without their knowledge and experience of when and where to dispatch, we wouldn’t be able to get out there and make a difference. They’ve handled it brilliantly so far, so credit must go to them.”

Mr Pickering said the MERIT service is separately funded and is run independently of the charity’s air ambulances, which continue to rely on donations to survive.


Patrick Whyte, an 18-year-old A-Level student from Eaglescliffe, was involved in the crash after leaving a house party in Long Newton, near Darlington, last September at around 8.30pm.

Mr Whyte was the passenger his friend’s Ford Fiesta. They were travelling along Long Newton Lane when the car hit a dip in the road causing the driver to lose control. The car hit a barrier and spun before coming to rest.

Mr Whyte sustained multiple serious injuries including fractures to his spine, cheek bone, ribs and shoulder blade as well as a punctured lung, broken collarbone, and various head injuries. As a result of the trauma, he suffered a severe case of subcutaneous emphysema, where air from the chest cavity gets trapped beneath the skin. Stuart Thompson, senior aircrew paramedic at GNAAS, said it was the worst such case he had ever encountered.

On arriving at scene, Mr Thompson and the GNAAS doctor found Mr Whyte to be extremely agitated – a common symptom of serious trauma. He was put into an induced coma on the roadside. This anaesthetic procedure is only available to doctors and therefore would not have been possible without the MERIT.

He was then taken by North East Ambulance Service to James Cook University Hospital, Middlesbrough, where his mother, Ruth Whyte, had been informed of the incident and was waiting.

Mrs Whyte, 47, said: “It was horrible when he arrived at hospital. He didn’t know where he was, who he was and he kept on asking for his mum, but I was there.

“Once his chest had been treated, I was only worried about his head injuries, he wasn’t Patrick until I knew that his head was sorted.”

Mr Whyte has now fully recovered from his injuries and recently visited the GNAAS airbase with his family to meet and thank Mr Thompson for his help on the day.

Mr Whyte said: “I feel all better now and I’m back at college so it’s all good. I appreciate life more now as you don’t realise how easy it is to lose it, I now appreciate the little things.”

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Copyright 2011 North East Ambulance Service Trust

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