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Whittington nurse takes to the skies in Afghanistan

PUBLISHED: 09:45 14 January 2013 | UPDATED: 09:45 14 January 2013

Lorraine Lawton on the back of an an RAF rescue helicopter in Camp Bastion

Lorraine Lawton on the back of an an RAF rescue helicopter in Camp Bastion

Archant

After working as a nurse consultant at the Whittington Hospital, Lorraine Lawton took the plunge and joined the RAF as a reservist. She gives Rachael Getzels a glimpse of what it is like to risk life and limb to help those most in need in combat zones.

Lorraine Lawton is an unassuming heroine. As if working as a nurse consultant in paediatric emergency medicine at the Whittington Hospital wasn’t enough, the 47-year-old has recently returned from saving lives on the front line of one of the world’s most dangerous regions.

Miss Lawton was part of the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) Helicopter Medical Retrieval Team working out of Camp Bastion in Afghanistan.

While it was only her third international posting for the RAF, her dedication was so great it earned her a nomination for Reservist Of The Year in the prestigious Sun Military Awards last month. She was one of just a handful of people in the country to be shortlisted for the awards, set up by Prince Charles to honour British civilian and military personnel serving in conflict.

“I was gobsmacked,” she says. “I nearly fell off my chair. I didn’t think I’d done anything extraordinary. I hadn’t run into a hail of bullets. I hadn’t done anything outside of what my job had been.”

Flying in the back of emergency helicopters, her team picks up the most severe casualties of conflict – British military personnel, Afghan soldiers and civilians.

“We fly for everyone,” she explains.

“If you’re injured on the battlefield, we fly out and resuscitate.” Most of the people she sees are so badly injured they have to have both limbs amputated.

Recalling one rescue, she says: “An American chap. A double-amputee. He had stood on an IED [improvised explosive device]. We were resuscitating him and giving him blood on the back of the aircraft. We thought he wouldn’t survive surgery. But after my shift I went to see how he’d done, and he’d survived. It’s about doing really simple things, really well.”

Hardly a job for the faint-hearted, it comes with obvious risks.

The low-flying Puma helicopters are an easily-spotted target in enemy skies – and are what Miss Lawton describes as “a big kill”.

“You have to accept that it’s a big, shiny aircraft that someone wants to shoot down,” she says. “But if you think about it too much, you would never get back on the helicopter.”

Miss Lawton joined the RAF in 1997, and as a reservist nurse she is expected to fly out to conflict zones at a moment’s notice, which can be difficult for her family.

Once there, her hours are defined by the rhythm of war – an evening air raid means a busy night ahead. Whenever her team is scrambled to the helicopter, they are accompanied by a group of protection officers.

“During your shifts, you sleep by the aircraft,” she says. “The radio goes off and an alarm sounds, which is really loud. It scares the pants off me.

“You always fly out with a bit of anticipation. But once you have the casualty on the back of the cab you don’t really focus on anything else. You don’t think about fear.”

Even down-time poses its own challenges in Camp Bastion, which is the size of Reading. There are shops, a gym, a Pizza Hut, and a bar with a big TV screen.

“The boys play a lot of [console game] Call Of Duty (a console game) in their down-time,” she says. “I would try but I was rubbish. They also watch a lot of Will Ferrell (star of Anchorman and Elf).

“I did try and force them to have a girl’s day. I had Dirty Dancing and An Officer And A Gentleman, but as soon as I pulled them out of the rucksack, the alarm went off and the boys said, ‘Thank God for that’.

“The teams were amazing, and I made such good friends, but sometimes I did just need to get away and read a book.

“The times when you have nothing to do can be the hardest. You start to lose the plot after 24 hours of three lads farting at you.”

Much like life in emergency wards in the UK, the harsh realities of her job means Miss Lawton tries not to dwell on each rescue.

“I do wonder how people are getting on and how they’ve fared, but you’ve got to move on,” she says.

“We once had a rescue for five children. They were playing with an IED and it exploded. We thought we were going to three children but when we got there it was five.

“Only one survived and he was badly injured. We heard the information in the aircraft and when we were told it was children, everyone’s expression changed.

“Whenever I see children that are involved, it is always difficult to get it straight in my head.

“It’s hardest to deal with innocent children.”

Miss Lawton doesn’t have children herself, but while they are the focus of her job at the Whittington Hospital, in Highgate, as a nurse consultant in paediatric emergency medicine, she says the two worlds couldn’t be more different.

“Whenever I come back from deployment it’s difficult going back to the NHS. But I try to put it in context.

“What happens out there is extraordinary. Here is real life.”

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