Caroline’s 680-mile cycle for the South Thames Retrieval Service

04 December 2020

Caroline May is completing a 680-mile static bike challenge to raise money for the South Thames Retrieval Service, a team of intensive care doctors and nurses who saved her son’s life when he was just five months old.

Caroline and Arthur, on the stationary bike
Caroline and Arthur, on the stationary bike

A journey to remember

Caroline’s life was turned upside down when her five-month-old baby Arthur’s common cold led to a rare inflammatory condition and heart failure.

Arthur’s symptoms showed no signs of getting better and when he stopped feeding, Caroline was advised by a doctor to take him to Tunbridge Wells Hospital, their local hospital.

There, tests revealed Arthur was suffering from heart abnormalities that required specialist care.

Arthur’s life hung in the balance. In order to make the journey between hospitals without Arthur’s condition deteriorating further, Arthur was transferred to Evelina London’s paediatric intensive care unit (PICU) by the South Thames Retrieval Service.

The South Thames Retrieval Service (STRS) are a team of intensive care doctors and nurses based at Evelina London. When the very sickest children in the south east of England need to be transported to a PICU in London, STRS use an ambulance equipped with intensive care treatments to bring life-saving care to them.

This means that children can get the vital support they need even as they are taken to hospital. STRS’s doctors and nurses are the same staff who work on the PICU at Evelina London, meaning those caring for the child have the greatest understanding of their condition and how best to help them.

“For so many families, we are the first step in a journey towards getting their child the life-saving care that they need,” explains Karen Starkie, a paediatric intensive care nurse and STRS coordinator. “Being able to bring an intensive care team and equipment to the child as quickly as possible is vital in order to ensure the best possible outcomes.”

The two senior doctors and specialist nurse from STRS who came to transfer Arthur were a ray of hope for Caroline at her darkest hour.

“Despite everything that was going through my head at the time, I was immediately struck by how kind and calm they were,” recalls Caroline. “Though Arthur was fighting for his life, I knew he was in the safest possible hands at that time.”
STRS team transporting Arthur to Evelina London
STRS team transporting Arthur to Evelina London

The STRS team stabilised Arthur by putting him on a high flow oxygen system before putting him in the ambulance and beginning the 42.5-mile journey to Evelina London.

Sitting in the ambulance with her son as the sirens blared and other cars pulled over to let them pass was surreal for Caroline.

“I was struck by just how serious the situation was and how every second the team spent treating Arthur mattered,” she says.

“Even though they were doing everything they could to save Arthur, they were constantly telling me what was going on, what all of the readings means. They weren’t just caring for him but they were educating and reassuring me. They were also preparing me for what life was going to be like when Arthur made it on to PICU.”

Arthur’s medical team diagnosed him with myocarditis, a rare inflammatory condition that can be caused by viral infections such as Arthur’s common cold.

Arthur’s myocarditis caused severe heart failure. The muscle wall of Arthur’s heart was so inflamed that it couldn’t pump properly and wasn’t working as well as it would normally. He was battling for his life with a heart function of just 11%.

But thanks to the emergency support of the STRS and the expert care of the team at Evelina London's PICU, Arthur was discharged after 16 days in hospital. He is now doing well and is about to celebrate his third birthday. Although Arthur still requires medical care from Evelina London, Caroline says he is just like any other little boy.

“You don’t know his medical history at all when you see how cheeky and charismatic he is,” she says.

“Though we see hundreds of children each year, I remember when we got the call to retrieve Arthur,” says Karen. “It’s wonderful to see Arthur is doing so well and bringing such joy to his family.”

Caroline’s static bike challenge

Caroline knows how easily Arthur’s story could have had an unhappy ending had it not been for the coordination between Tunbridge Wells Hospital and the specialist STRS transfer team.

In 2018 alone, Arthur was one 828 children transferred by the STRS team. Now that she knows first-hand how important the STRS’ work is for so many families, Caroline was keen to do something to thank the team whose care and expertise arrived right when she needed it most.

“Before we needed them, I didn’t know a service like STRS existed,” says Caroline. “But for families like ours, they can mean the difference between life and death.”

“To be able to do what they do every day – seeing the sickest children, the most distraught families – and be able to act with both compassion and world class skill is something I’ll be in awe of forever.”

Caroline has pledged to cycle the 42.5 miles STRS cared for Arthur between Tunbridge Wells Hospital and Evelina London 16 times to mark the 16 days Arthur spent at Evelina London.

The money she raises will be split between Evelina London’s South Thames Retrieval Service and Tunbridge Wells Hospital.

Completing the challenge would be no easy feat at the best of times, but the coronavirus pandemic will add an extra level of difficulty to Caroline’s fundraising. As Arthur’s condition was brought on by a virus, Caroline’s family have had to take extra precautions to keep him safe.

“We’re having to lead quite a restricted life at the moment because of COVID-19, but I didn’t want that to stop me from raising money and awareness of the incredible work of the STRS team,” Caroline explains.

“I’m not much of a sportswoman so cycling this distance at home is a real challenge for me – particularly as I’m doing it while looking after three young children. But I just feel compelled to say ‘thank you,’” she added.

“We are all delighted that Caroline is fundraising for our team,” says Karen. “It means so much that Caroline is helping to support the work of the STRS team. We wish her the best of luck with the rest of her challenge. We’re all right behind her.”

You can help fund more life-saving care like STRS by fundraising for Evelina London. Find out how you can get started on your fundraising journey.

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