By Eimhear McGurk
AFTER tragically losing his father to a farming accident, Aughnacloy man Damien McAnespie has now become a community volunteer for Air Ambulance NI (AANI), a service which he credits for providing his father with “the best possible chance at survival”.
The fateful accident occurred on June 23, 2018, a day the McAnespie family will never forget.
What started as a typical Saturday soon turned to tragedy when Harry McAnespie visited Clogher mart – something which he did every week – when he was hit by a calf.
“My dad had been going to Clogher Mart for years, buying and selling cattle,” explained Harry’s son Damien.
“He went to the mart as usual last June with my older brother Eamon, and although we’re not sure exactly what has happened yet, he was struck by a calf that burst through the gate behind him.
“He hit the ground with quite a whack at the back of his head, and the calf kind of jumped through the gate and struck him with his hoof on the head too.”
At 80-years-old ‘wee Harry’ was a very fit and healthy man; he never had any ailments or used any form of medication.
He was always on the go and hated sitting idly, in fact his saying was “If you rest, you rust”.
After getting a call on the Saturday afternoon to say that his father had “got a knock”, Damien was told there was no real need to panic.
“It really was a knock to be honest, he had gotten knocks before and had always been grand.
“There was no real emergency or drama in the short term, he was sitting up and talking.”
However, just 20 minutes later Damien received another phone call to say the Air Ambulance NI (AANI) had arrived at the scene, something which he found “a bit strange”.
The helicopter brings emergency room care to the scene, and the crew comprised of a doctor and a paramedic had spent around an hour working on Harry, before transporting him to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast, a journey that took less than 30 minutes by air.
“They had been purely working on the ground with dad for around an hour before they took off, so it was comforting knowing he had been given the best chance and it just wasn’t meant to be,” said Damien.
“The fact they were at the scene, and they did everything possible that day for my dad gives us a wee bit of comfort.
“We have no ‘what if’ questions, there’s nothing like that. Everything that could’ve been done was done for dad and it just wasn’t meant to be.”
This was not the first time the family had been devastated by a farming incident as in April 2007 Harry’s brother Mickey McAnespie who lived in Loughmacrory, was struck by his own bull and killed.
Although Harry was initially lucid and speaking for roughly 30 minutes after the accident, he had received a very serious injury to the head, and it got progressively worse over time as his brain began to swell.
Upon arriving at hospital, the McAnespie family were told that Harry had suffered a “catastrophic injury to the head” and there was nothing they could do for him.
Devastated by the news, the family were able to say their goodbyes to Harry before he slipped away in the early hours of the Sunday morning.
“In a funny kind of ironic way he died in the place he loved, in a job he loved doing, which was nice.
“You have to look at things in a positive way, it wasn’t as if he was sick and suffering for years.
“If dad wanted a way to go it would’ve been like this, no suffering, no illness.”
Despite the shock of the entire ordeal, the family were so grateful for the work of the Air Ambulance – that they set up a donation box for the charity at his wake and raised around £2,000.
This money goes a long way for the AANI which, as a charity, relies entirely on the generosity of the public to meet its £2million a year running costs.
AANI is a vital service for people all over the North, and since its formation in July 2017. Up until February 2019, the helicopter has been tasked to 752 incidents across the country.
It was this rapid critical care to Harry both at the scene and during transportation to hospital which prompted Damien’s desire to get involved with the charity.
“Although I knew they (AANI) were about the country for nearly a year before dad’s accident, until you get that personal connection with a charity, it doesn’t really touch you as such,” Damien explained.
“So I signed up, I filled out the form on the website and put my name forward to be a volunteer.”
The Air Ambulance gets at least one call a day and the daily cost of running the service is £5,500. As a relatively new charity, raising public awareness is key to its survival.
It takes the helicopter roughly 25 minutes to reach any region in the North and for those living in rural areas, this is a crucial service given the distance from the nearest trauma centre.
“It all comes down to this golden hour, which is how it is referred to, where you have the best chance of survival if you get medical attention within this time,” explained Damien.
“Once you cross that boundary at the Ballygawley roundabout you really are in the sticks.
“If you factor in journey time from places like Sion Mills or Greencastle, time is going to be the factor in whether an injury is going to be fatal or whether someone may lose a limb or whatever it may be.
“With the Air Ambulance, it’s not just the case as such of getting the person quickly to the hospital because the hospital care is already there.”
For Damien, his work with AANI is all about keeping the memory of his father alive.
“Every time we see them on the news or people tell me they’ve seen them fly over, I think of dad and him being in that helicopter, it brings it back a bit, but in a good way too.
“Dad was 80-years-old, he had a fantastic life, four children, all who have gotten married and had children. We are thankful we had so long with him.”
Damien is now the AANI representative in the Tyrone area and part of his role involves holding collections, as well as giving talks to different organisations and groups.
“It is all about raising awareness of the service,” he said.
“The hospital is brought to the patient when the Air Ambulance arrives, they have so much specialised equipment and the experienced personnel to start the emergency care right there and then.”
As a teacher in St Mary’s Primary School in Cabragh, Damien is keen to educate young people about the amazing work of AANI.
On Valentine’s Day the school hosted a ‘Go Red Day’ which helped raise almost £700 for the charity and members of AANI even came out to the school to speak to the children.
Hoping to spearhead a more sustainable funding method for AANI, DUP’s Kim Ashton raised a motion at the Mid Ulster District Council meeting in January to ensure permanent financial support from local councils towards the running of the Air Ambulance.
Although such a motion has yet to be approved, it has generated a lot of support.
For just £2 a week you can become a member of Club AANI and regularly support the charity by way of direct debit to ensure it’s survival. “It is one of these services that doesn’t take into account age, background or religion,” added Damien.
“It gives people that chance of life, you’d hope that it would be here forever because nobody knows when they might need it.”
• To help keep this vital service in the air and be part of its long term sustainability, join Club AANI by visiting www.airambulanceni.org/club-aani- membership/