Joe, Sam and Harry were involved in a serious climbing accident last year. Due to the severity of their injuries, two of the boys needed urgent pre-hospital care before being airlifted to hospital. Joe’s mum Emily and Harry’s family jointly share their story with us.

On Friday 19th March 2021, Joe, his close friend Sam and Sam’s older brother Harry, decided to go rock climbing for the day, choosing a disused quarry owned by the climbing association; a location and route they had climbed before.

The rock climbing incident

On their first climb of the day, Joe and Harry successfully completed a 30-metre climb and were pleased with their assent. Unfortunately, at the start of their descent something went wrong. They slipped and through a combination of tumbling and falling they reached the bottom of the rock face.

Harry landed head first, suffering a serious head injury and multiple fractures. Joe fell feet first breaking his left heel, right ankle and back quite badly on impact. The force of the fall also caused his harness to tighten around him, resulting in a range of internal injuries, including a lacerated liver.

Sam was at the bottom of the face waiting for the boys to descend. He not only witnessed the horrific fall, but then had the difficult task of contacting the emergency services while they were going in and out of consciousness and in considerable pain. Sam’s quick thinking, as well as the detailed information that he provided, enabled the emergency services to locate the boys as quickly as possible. When they arrived, Sam went to meet them and guided them to the scene of the incident. He felt a huge sense of relief and gratitude that they were there to manage the situation.

The arrival of help

The ambulance service dispatched a number of resources to the scene, including an ambulance, BASICS doctors, the Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service. This included a fire engine from Shepton Mallet, an aerial ladder platform from Bath and specialist rescue teams from Bridgwater. A specialist rescue team was also dispatched from Trowbridge after the incident commander arrived at the scene. The crews worked together to formulate a plan and extract the boys safely from the quarry.

Both Dorset and Somerset Air Ambulance (DSAA) and Wiltshire Air Ambulance were tasked to the incident and communicated effectively with the other teams to manage the situation.

Harry was attended to by DSAA; his airway had to be artificially maintained, the bleeding from his head stemmed and his deteriorating level of consciousness needed to be assessed; he was placed into an induced coma. Joe was treated by the crew from Wiltshire who assessed him, freed him from his harness and administered pain relief. Both the boys were carried out of the quarry on spinal boards to the respective air ambulance helicopters, which had managed to land close by.

Sam was described as walking wounded but was naturally left very traumatised from witnessing his brother and close friend fall, as well as witnessing their considerable injuries. A member of the Fire Service was exceptionally supportive of him, for which we are really grateful.

Harry was airlifted to the major trauma centre at Southmead Hospital in Bristol, where he was managed in intensive care. He underwent neurosurgery to remove a blood clot and reduce pressure around the brain, followed by further surgery to reduce a fracture of the left cheek bone. In total, he was in hospital for 13 days and although Harry has made a remarkable physical recovery, he realises that this has been a life changing event for all involved. Joe was airlifted to Royal United Hospital Bath. However, following an initial assessment, he was then transferred to Southmead, where Harry had also been taken. He underwent an emergency operation to stabilise his back and various other operations to repair broken bones.

Joe and Harry's recovery

Joe was in hospital for two weeks following all his surgery, before being allowed home to continue his recovery. As he had metal rods, screws and plates inserted into his back, ankle and heel, Joe spent two months in a wheelchair, non-weight bearing on both feet. After nine weeks, he progressed to using a boot and crutches, before starting intense physio.

Miraculously, both boys left hospital within a few days of each other; an unexpectedly positive outcome! They have gone on to make remarkable progress and we are all incredibly relieved to see them both doing so well; it really is a miracle they survived. The combination of care that they received at the scene, together with a great deal of surgical skill and a degree of luck, has certainly enabled them to make such positive recoveries.

Meeting a child being delivered to hospital by air ambulance is an extremely traumatic and frightening experience. Due to the way the boys had fallen, they suffered a very different range of injuries. While Joe was being treated in Southmead, everyone was extremely conscious of the complex situation that Harry’s family were going through. He was in intensive care and we did not know what effect his injuries would have on his future or even whether he would survive.

The situation was made even more difficult by the fact that the nation was still gripped by a total lockdown and visiting was severely restricted. Not being able to be at the boys’ bedside was extremely tough for everyone. The fantastic support that both our families received from DSAA’s Patient and Family Liaison Nurses, Kirsty Caswell and Jo Petheram, as well as the major trauma practitioner at Southmead Hospital, was invaluable, both during the early stages and once the boys were discharged from hospital. They helped us to understand what had happened, how Harry and Joe’s care would be managed, as well as making connections with the relevant hospital staff. We are hugely grateful for their care, support and advice. A subsequent visit to the air ambulance base enabled us to meet the crews involved in the rescue and understand more about the events of the day.

We wanted to share our story to show how grateful we are for the work of the air ambulance teams and to illustrate the positive outcomes that can be realised from their work. Not only did they save Harry and Joe’s lives, but their decision making and the immediate treatment they administered at the scene, prevented further complications and longer lasting injuries for them both. The crews who rescued them were also the most inspirational, wonderful and supportive people that we have met. We are in awe of the work they do and eternally grateful to everyone involved in treating and caring for all three boys on the day.

If you've been inspired by Joe, Sam and Harry's story and would like to help us to continue saving lives, we would be grateful to receive your donation. No matter how big or small, every penny donated really will make a big difference! Thank you.

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NEXT: Read Lily's Story