FEATURE: How Sidbury family’s tragedy launched Devon Air Ambulance

Ann Thomas with the Devon Air Ambulance crew at its launch in 1992

Ann Thomas with the Devon Air Ambulance crew at its launch in 1992 - Credit: Archant

Devon Air Ambulance Trust celebrates its 25th anniversary this month. The charity, which has 17 shops across Devon, is also now getting close to completing 25,000 missions - saving tens of thousands of lives in the process.

Ann is pictured with her son Glyn, daughter Sarah and grandchildren Lilu, Lily and Latour at the 20t

Ann is pictured with her son Glyn, daughter Sarah and grandchildren Lilu, Lily and Latour at the 20th anniversary Devon Air Ambulance Trust celebrations in 2012. - Credit: Archant

To mark the milestone, the cause’s founder has given her heartbreaking account of the turmoil her family faced which led to its launch.

Former Sidbury resident Dr Ann Ralli, then Ann Thomas, lost her 18-year-old son Ceri on December 29, 1986, after he was involved in a car accident while riding his bike on Sidbury Hill.

It took an ambulance an hour to get Ceri to hospital, by which time it was already too late. When a doctor was asked if anything could have saved him, he said ‘only an air ambulance’.

Ann, who was born in Axminster, said in most places, especially in the countryside, the time it took for an ambulance to get a victim to hospital was too long - going over the ‘golden hour’ where it was still possible to save a life that was draining away.

The charity over the years.

The charity over the years. - Credit: Archant

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“Ceri took that golden hour,” said Ann. “An air ambulance could have got to him and begun delivering life-saving treatment in two minutes, instead of the 60 minutes it actually took – 58 minutes saved.”

Ann said she didn’t want others to suffer what she and children Glyn, Sion and Toni had experienced.

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“This went around and around in my head – tortuous despair, anguish and confusion,” she said.

“I can’t explain adequately in words what it feels like to lose your child, the obliteration of all your reasoning and the turmoil of your feelings and emotions. And it’s not just you - the mother who gave birth to him, nurtured, cared for him and ‘kept him safe’. How ironic - that you hadn’t kept him safe! It was all for nothing - the abject horror and profound anger at the waste of such a precious life - but also for my other three children.

The charity over the years.

The charity over the years. - Credit: Archant

“All our lives were changed forever. Our perceptions, priorities, attitudes, emotional strengths and frailties were fragmented.

“The grief my other children suffered was as painful as my own.

“I had to ensure they knew they were worth going on for, that they were just as precious, even more so now. They made life worth living. For their sake, I had to do something positive to drag myself up from the depths of despair.”

Ann, now aged 74, then made the decision to embark on a campaign to help her family heal.

The charity over the years.

The charity over the years. - Credit: Archant

After nine months, she began researching the idea of an air ambulance and tried to rally support by meeting with doctors across Devon, many of them based and living in rural countryside areas.

At the time, there were one million people in Devon, so, if everyone gave 50pence, it would be enough to launch the charity.

Ann established the Devon Air Ambulance Trust and, with the help of another air ambulance company, embarked on a mission to draw people’s attention by landing a helicopter in six locations.

One of the biggest events, which ensured everyone had heard of the Ceri Thomas Appeal, was held at Exeter Cathedral, where a helicopter was landed in its grounds for the first time in history.

The charity over the years.

The charity over the years. - Credit: Archant

“We started with absolutely nothing,” said Ann. “We had no big donors, but the Devon people took it to their hearts and went off and raised money - forming networks of fundraisers - doing everything you could imagine. The money started to roll in and, over the 25 years, it hasn’t stopped.

“It was rewarding, exhilarating and exciting - so many people working together as a team, but it was hard work.”

Ann said one of the hardest things was when the more influential individuals and organisations, who had promised their support, backed out after being advised by the Health Authority to not be associated with the charity’s failure.

Despite the setbacks, the charity was launched in August 1992.

Ann and Ceri Thomas

Ann and Ceri Thomas - Credit: Archant

The air ambulance’s first call-out was to Haldon Hill to a man in his 40s who had had a heart attack. His heart had stopped in spite of what people on the ground could do. The air ambulance arrived within two minutes and its paramedics were able to stabilise him and take him to hospital.

“Everyone shouted from the hilltops when we were able to say we had saved our first life,” said Ann. “By saving that one life, whatever the cost or effort, it was worth it - especially to that man and his family and me and my family. Because of Ceri, that man’s life had been saved.”

From then, the ambulance was its own best ambassador - making the news every time it was called out.

The charity was eventually able to extend its hours from four-days-a-week to full-time and provide a second helicopter stationed in North Devon.

Ann said her and her family worked day and night to get things done until the service was able to support itself.

She added: “It really didn’t need me any more. My ‘baby’ (the air ambulance charity) had grown up and I needed to let my child go and let my staff do their job.”

Ann, who moved to the USA two years ago, said: “The charity now meets the running costs of around £5.5million per year for two full-time air ambulances and, because of this, tens of thousands of lives have been saved.

“This was what it was all about - this is why I and my other children started the charity to raise money to provide the air ambulance which would save lives, so that other families did not have to go through what we did - they did not have to lose a loved one.” n

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