This month marks the 25th anniversary of the Devon Air Ambulance. Here, Becky Sheaves talks to Ann Ralli, now 74, who remembers the unprecedented support from local farmers in her quest to set up the rescue ambulance, following the tragic death of her teenage son.
In 1986, 31 years ago, my son Ceri set off from our home just outside Sidmouth, in east Devon, to go to his traineeship job at a garage in Honiton. He cycled out of our driveway and was hit by a car.
It took an ambulance 80 minutes to reach him and get him to hospital in Exeter, during which time his injuries became irreparable and he died. He was just 18 years old.
At the hospital, I asked the surgeon if anything could have helped him. Could anything have saved his life? He replied: ‘Only a helicopter.’ Those words stayed with me.
There is a so-called ‘golden hour’ after a serious accident, during which treatment can make the difference between life and death. Ceri did not have that chance and so his short life was over, his dreams would never turn into reality.
Ceri was such a positive person. He had such plans for life. ‘I just want to make a difference,’ he used to say to me.
All I could think was, his death was such a waste.
At first, I was pole-axed by what had happened. I still had to get up in the morning because I had two other sons – Glyn, then 16, Sion, 14, and my daughter Toni, who was only 11. But it was hard not to start weeping, just when I least expected it. The accident ripped our family’s life apart. There were days when I moved through a fog of grief, struggling to function.
Gradually though, I set to thinking – if only a helicopter could have saved my beloved son. How many more families would lose loved ones, as we had? Could anything be done?
I discovered a helicopter would cost £500,000 a year to lease and staff with a pilot and medical team. At that time, the population of Devon was one million people.
If they each donated 50p a year, we could have an air ambulance, I said to myself. In Ceri’s memory and in his honour, to stop any more families going through what we had, I decided to make it happen.
My first and strongest supporters were farmers and equestrians. They really understood the need for an air ambulance.
I have a special bond with farmers, as although we weren’t farmers, myself and my brother spent most of our young lives on a farm in Dalwood, near Axminster, and have very happy memories.
The first person who raised money for me and the Devon air ambulance was the farmer’s daughter who helped raise me and knew Ceri. She and her farming family personally raised thousands for the air ambulance.
I will never forget speaking to a Young Farmers’ Club group in the Devon countryside and one young lad, just a year older than Ceri had been when he died, literally turned out every penny in his pocket to give to me, there and then. He said ‘please go on and do it, I know you can. We really need an air ambulance.’
The money was raised from thousands of small donations and charity events – jam making, jumble sales. We didn’t have big celebrity or corporate gifts back then. It really was the rural communities in Devon who did their best to support my dream of bringing one to the county.
And it was when I got so low and felt I couldn’t go on, it was the thought of Ceri and those farmers and individuals who had trusted me who kept me going. They had faith that I could do it. The memory of that Young Farmer who gave me all the coins he had from his pockets always gave me that extra push to carry on. I have always wished I had taken his name. I would love to ask if he recognises himself, and, if so, if he could get in contact.
An early boost for my campaign, in 1990, came from the London air ambulance, based at St Bartholomew’s Hospital. I asked if I could borrow it for a weekend and to my amazement they said yes.
Next, the Dean of Exeter Cathedral gave me permission to land the helicopter on the Cathedral Green.
In one weekend, we landed at key sites over Devon, including Plymouth Hoe – the first time a helicopter had ever landed there. It was such an eye-catching way of showing that the helicopter really could come to the rescue in remarkable places and it opened so many doors for my campaign.
At the time of Ceri’s death, I was working full-time as a teacher at Exmouth Community College. My employers were so sympathetic and allowed me to go part-time and pretty much choose my hours, so I could fit in my campaigning.
Within two years, by 1992, I had raised enough money to get the helicopter I had dreamed of. It was such a proud moment to see the air ambulance right here in Devon, complete with my son’s name, Ceri Thomas, emblazoned on the side.
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Within a week of the ambulance arriving in Devon, it saved its first life. A man collapsed on Haldon Hill and his heart stopped beating.
The air ambulance arrived within minutes bringing oxygen, a defibrillator and medical staff. Without a doubt his life – which would have been lost – was saved. I cannot describe the sense of achievement, all in my son Ceri’s name.
It was a wonderful moment.
Once the air ambulance had actually become a reality, the dynamics of the fund-raising changed a lot.
Big donors came on board, companies donated money and we received large legacies. Within a year, the service was an established charity with staff, a director and a sustainable income stream from regular donations and annual events.
Today, we now have not one but two helicopters, one based near Exeter, and the other in north Devon. Both are owned outright – the Devon air ambulance has raised enough to buy its own helicopters at a cost of £4.5 million each. The service now needs £5.5 million every year to keep going, and is still funded entirely by donations.
At the time, I was driven, totally inspired by the thought of my son Ceri and how positive and determined he always was.
I came up against a lot of hurdles along the way, especially when some local politicians and people in authority tried to block me because they believed we didn’t need an air ambulance and that it would end up, in some way, costing them money.
I could see some people just wrote me off as an emotional woman who was crazed by grief. I didn’t care what they thought of me though.
About a year after the ambulance arrived in Devon, it was time for me to bow out gracefully. I knew the air ambulance was up and running and didn’t need me any more – and I didn’t want to hover around, like a helicopter myself.
I had always wanted to travel and never had the chance, so I moved to the Middle East to teach in a school over there before moving to Hong Kong. While there, my daughter Toni met her husband, who is an American naval officer. They have three children and 10 years ago I retired – though I still teach a little – and moved to be near them in Louisiana.
My ex-husband and son Sion now both live in Wales, where Sion works in forestry. Glyn is a university music lecturer in Manchester and my children and grandchildren are a joy to me.
My oldest son Ceri never had the chance to live his life and grow to adulthood but his name is still on the side of both Devon Air Ambulances, which have flown nearly 25,000 rescue missions in the past 25 years. And that makes me feel so very proud.