Specialist children’s intensive care service celebrates 25 years

Last updated: Monday, 03 July 2023

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A specialist children’s retrieval service led by Evelina London Children’s Hospital is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

The South Thames Retrieval Service (STRS) is an intensive care service, transporting critically ill children and young people from local hospitals to paediatric intensive care and critical care units across the south Thames region and further afield.

The team is made up of clinicians from Evelina London’s paediatric intensive care unit, who are trained in stabilising and transferring seriously ill children.

They provide expert advice to staff at local hospitals, while en route to retrieve patients in specially-equipped ambulances or in an air ambulance. When the team arrives, intensive care is provided to stabilise the patient and continues throughout the journey, so they can be safely transferred.

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Isla, 14, had to be transferred urgently by STRS to Evelina London’s paediatric intensive care unit (PICU) after she was diagnosed with severe pneumonia last December.

Isla’s dad Charlie, 49, from Twickenham, said: “Isla was so poorly when STRS arrived that Isla’s mum, Lisa, and I were in shock at what was happening. 24 hours before, Isla just had a slight temperature. None of this made sense and she was deteriorating so quickly. When the STRS team arrived, they were reassuring and talked through everything with us, answering all of our many questions in a way we could understand!

“I felt helpless seeing Isla fighting for breath and not being able to do anything to help her. In between these feelings, I remember seeing how calm STRS were, listening to each other, agreeing every next step together, knowing, with no ambiguity, who was doing what and when. I’ve watched great sporting teams in action, but this was as good as any of them.”

When Isla arrived at Evelina London’s PICU, she was immediately put on a ventilator for two weeks to help with her breathing.

Charlie continued: “In between all the activity, the ambulance, the sirens, beeping machines, the sound of the ventilator; every nurse, doctor, physio and member of staff found a human connection with Isla. She was not just another patient to them. Isla’s hair was plaited each day, the radio was tuned to the stations she liked, they talked to her, and kept Lisa and I going.

“Isla spent 10 days on PICU and then three days on a ward before being discharged home. She has made a great recovery, both physically and mentally. We have no doubt that Isla wouldn’t be here now if it wasn’t for the STRS team and that, more than anything else, sums up the amazing job they do.”

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The service officially launched in 1997, however the idea of an intensive care retrieval service was pioneered by Ian Murdoch, Professor of paediatric intensive care at Evelina London Children’s Hospital, in 1994.

In 2002, STRS was the first retrieval team in the country that allowed parents to accompany their child during the transfer in specially-equipped ambulances.

In July 2006, Kirsteen McCulloch became the first paediatric critical care advanced nurse practitioner in Europe to undertake a nurse-led retrieval of a critically unwell child.

Kirsteen McCulloch, now Head of Patient Safety, Quality and Assurance at Evelina London Children’s Hospital, said: “It was a huge privilege to be the first nurse to lead the retrieval of a critically unwell child. Ahead of the journey, I was slightly nervous to be the first, but also excited at what this would mean for the development of the service.

“I joined Evelina London’s PICU in 1996 and then STRS when it launched in 1997. In 2015, I left intensive care to continue my career as a Head of Nursing, but I still maintain my clinical skills and continue to take part in retrievals. It’s incredibly humbling to see the direct impact the service has on families.”

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Shelley Riphagen, consultant in paediatric intensive care and STRS service lead, said: “We’re so exceptionally proud of our service and everything it’s achieved over the past 25 years. STRS has developed so much, especially as technology and medical advances have been made. When we first started transferring patients, we didn’t have mobile phones so small things like being able to communicate with the receiving hospital en route has made a huge difference!

“Our STRS team is one of two retrieval teams in the UK to be fully integrated with a paediatric intensive care team. This is hugely beneficial for families as it ensures our retrieval team has highly specialist skills, making sure the sickest patients receive expert care as soon as possible, like Isla did – it is great to hear how well she is doing now.”

STRS provides advice and care to 2,000 critically ill children in the south Thames region every year.

Evelina London Children’s Hospital is the largest centre for paediatric intensive care in the south Thames region, with 30 intensive care beds in total.

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