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ICU on wheels

The highly trained Critical Care Retrieval Services (CCRS) teams spring into action when a critically ill or injured patient needs to be transported from one facility to another that’s better equipped to deal with their condition and medical needs.

“It’s a specialised division that encompasses both ground and air ambulances,” says Emergency Care Practitioner Maryna Venter, who manages the unit. “We have two ICU ambulances – one in Cape Town and one in Johannesburg – and we also make use of other air ambulance service providers when necessary.”

Early last year, the ER24 ICU team completed a successful transfer of a patient from a hospital in Johannesburg to Mediclinic Midstream. “At that time, the patient’s family had been called in and told she had less than 12 hours to live,” Maryna recalls. “They had begged the medical professional to transfer her to a more suitable facility, but every other ambulance service or helicopter team said she was too sick to move.”

The woman involved had an abdominal compartment syndrome and was in cardiac and renal failure following complications from surgery. Yet, the ER24 Critical Care Retrieval Unit rose to the challenge and conducted the transfer, despite her precarious condition. “The patient was treated successfully in the new facility and later discharged from ICU,” Maryna says. “When she came to visit us more than a year after the event, it was so rewarding to realise we had played a part in saving her life.”

Maryna explains that the vehicles used in these extremely technical transfers are highly specialised. “They’re like ICUs on wheels,” she says, and come complete with state-of-the-art ventilators, incubators, self-loading patient stretchers and various other pieces of equipment. 

“Because we deal with critically ill patients, the intellectual load in this line of work is high. We see a high ratio of premature or otherwise critically ill neonates [babies], so the emotional load is equally big. It can be a tough balancing act trying to stay calm and reassuring when a new mother’s stress levels are rising.” 

The Critical Care Retrieval Service was the only provider able to successfully transfer twin sisters born at 24 weeks and weighing just 500g from Nelspruit to Johannesburg, where they received expert treatment. “In these types of cases, the reward is so high, despite the stress,” Maryna says. “I’m passionate about my work, and it’s amazing to form a link in the care of a patient who would otherwise not be able to make it.”