It’s a double celebration for Sammy Wills: this month marks the 30th anniversary of the start of her paramedic career with the Yorkshire Ambulance Service, and in September she reached 20 years with the YAA. Wills joined the charity on 21 September 2002, when it was still in its infancy. YAA was established in October 2000. We took these milestones as an opportunity to reflect on how her career and YAA have changed.
After two decades at the charity, what was it like at the very start?
I finished my training on the Friday at Leeds Bradford Airport and the duty crew asked me if I had passed. Then they wanted me to do them a favor and swap my shift to work the next day. I remember my first job was a road traffic collision on a roundabout in Leeds and one of the occupants was heavily pregnant. Luckily, everyone was fine, and the lady was taken to hospital as a precaution. It was a gentle introduction to the HEMS world.
How have YAA helicopters changed over the years?
I have loved aviation since I was a kid and have had the privilege of flying on every single Yorkshire air ambulance. We initially rented, but now we own both our aircraft, which is a credit to the charity. A lot has changed in that time. We have really enhanced the style of the aircraft, with a lot more space to treat patients. The first thing I noticed when we upgraded to G-SASH and G-CEMS from our first Bolkow was that the new helicopters didn’t smell like museum pieces! When I first flew G-PASG, it genuinely had an aroma of old aviation fuel and electrics.
It is not just the helicopters that have changed, but the team that fly in them. YAA is celebrating its first year of having the largest female HEMS crew since its inception. At one point I was the only female crew member, and now we’ve taken over a whole corner of the locker room.
Over the past 20 years, HEMS has developed considerably. Have you personally noticed or been affected by those enhancements?
It was only recently when I attended a particular job that I realized how far the charity has come. We did everything we could for the patient, and there was nothing else that we could have done that wouldn’t have been performed in the hospital. We had the whole team working on the patient as best we could – it was like a milestone. When I look at what we did 20 years ago to what we do now, we as a charity, and as a service, have made great strides. We didn’t even have morphine on board when I started.
How have people’s views of YAA changed since you joined the charity?
When I started at Yorkshire Air Ambulance, no one recognized that we were a charity; they wouldn’t have thought to have put that together. Now we’re recognizable all over the world.
YAA, and you specifically, have achieved global recognition by featuring on the TV show Helicopter ER. How has it been for you since becoming a world-famous HEMS paramedic and star?
I do get stopped a lot, especially when the series is on. It’s always nice to be able to say thank you to our supporters. What is embarrassing though is when you get recognized in your swimming costume when you are abroad! I’ve even been on a bus in Kenya and a Scottish lady turned round and said, ‘I know you, you’re on the helicopter’.
Looking back over your time with YAA, why did you choose to spend 20 years of your career here?
Because it’s a privilege to help people on the worst day of their lives. Supporting them with the state-of-the-art aircraft and the best critical care team available, alongside the colleagues you have total faith in, and doing your very best as a complete team. It’s not just about getting there fast or flying them quickly to the hospital. It’s the team that works together, drills together, eats together and plays together that helps that individual or whole families by performing on the job.