NI’s First Children’s Ambulance celebrates its’ first birthday with Children’s Heartbeat Trust

| 2nd February, 2024

Over 200 trips have been made by the ambulance in 2023, providing families and children with a less stressful journey to life-saving surgery.  

From left, Vicky Hart NISTAR, Joanne McCallister, Chief Executive, Emma McConnell, from Carrickfergus and her daughter Amber, Cara Barbour NISTAR, Paul Johnston NIAS, Niall Parfitt, board member and Laraine Redmond NISTAR.

Joanne McCallister, Chief Executive of Children’s Heartbeat Trust and Emma McConnell with her daughter Amber.

Joanne McCallister, Chief Executive of Children’s Heartbeat Trust and Emma McConnell with her daughter Amber.

From left, Vicky Hart, Laraine Redmond NISTAR, Paul Johnston NIAS and Cara Barbour NISTAR

From left, Susan Greer, Communications & Marketing Manager, Joanne McCallister, Chief Executive, Emma McConnell with her daughter Amber, Niall Parfitt, board member, and Liz Carton Family Support Officer of Children's Heartbeat Trust.

NORTHERN IRELAND’s first bespoke Children’s Ambulance which was launched in January 2023 by Children’s Heartbeat Trust has turned one. The charity, in its 40th year, works to provide practical, emotional and financial support to children and young people living with heart disease and their families.

In Northern Ireland, approximately 200 children are born with congenital heart disease every year, which often means frequent trips to Dublin for families and beyond, to receive specialist medical treatment including surgery.

According to statistics from the Northern Ireland Specialist Transport and Retrieval (NISTAR), 95 trips were made in the Children’s Ambulance, to or from Dublin for children needing cardiac treatment or surgery in the last 12 months. Overall, the ambulance made 221 trips for children and young adults needing treatment or surgery.

Following a hugely successful ‘Mile A Day’ fundraising campaign in 2021 in which over £100,000 was raised by the public for the Children’s Heartbeat Trust, the charity donated £100,000 to commission and build the £140,000 bespoke Children’s Ambulance, in partnership with the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service (NIAS).

Ciaran from the NIAS commented, “The Children’s Ambulance has definitely been one of the Northern Ireland NHS success stories of 2023. NIAS are proud to be helping deliver this service along with colleagues from the Children’s Heartbeat Trust; Northern Ireland Specialist Transport and Retrieval Service (NISTAR) and the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust.  

We are delighted that over 200 children have benefited from this service so far and are happy to hear that this ambulance helps alleviate some of the stress and anxiety faced by these children and their families. We look forward to continued success with the Children’s ambulance in 2024.”

The ambulance is fully equipped with the latest specialist medical equipment and provides a welcoming and warm environment to help reduce any stress and anxiety for families travelling to Dublin. The interior of the ambulance is space themed and features sensory equipment to calm younger children as well as a PlayStation and tablet facilities to help entertain young people during the journey. It is also adapted with wheelchair tracks, enabling older children to make the journey in a wheelchair as opposed to a trolley.

Supporting approximately 500 families every year, Joanne McCallister, Chief Executive of Children’s Heartbeat Trust says,

“Children’s Heartbeat Trust is delighted to kick off Heart Month by celebrating the first year of NI’s Children’s Ambulance. We knew when we purchased it that the ambulance would make a real difference to our heart families travelling to Dublin for their surgeries. At such a fraught time it offers relief from a clinical environment and helps reduce the stress for parents whilst offering sensory and entertainment distractions for the children, to help ease their anxiety about what lies ahead. The feedback from families who have used it has been wonderful. We are grateful to our partners NIAS and NISTAR for the dedicated care they deliver whilst transporting, not just our heart warriors and their families, but also children with other conditions who require specialist transport in NI.”

Emma McConnell from Carrickfergus found out at her 20-week scan that her child Amber, who is now 16 months old, would be born with a serious condition affecting the left side of her heart.

In February 2023, Emma found out that Amber, who was five months old at the time, needed open-heart surgery which would mean travelling to Dublin. The long journey from Belfast to Dublin for surgery can be difficult for children and their families. Emma had learnt about the Children’s Ambulance from other heart mums, nurses on the ward and the Family Support Team at Children’s Heartbeat Trust. Describing her and Amber’s experience in the ambulance, Emma comments,

“The sensory experience made us feel so much more relaxed and rather than seeing the medical equipment on display in clear boxes, it was hidden away which also put us at ease. The expert NISTAR team talked to us throughout our whole journey to Dublin, which gave me that extra bit of reassurance”.

“The journey was much easier, more relaxing and more comfortable compared to an ordinary ambulance”.

Following her successful surgery and further treatments during the year, Amber’s mum adds,

“We now have a cheeky little smiley 16-month-old baby who can now walk!  Children’s Heartbeat Trust have supported us since before Amber was born, right up until now and we are so thankful for all their support and generosity”.

Meanwhile, NISTAR Nurse Led Transport Nurse Linda McCready said, During each Dublin transfer, in the dedicated Children’s Ambulance, I get to witness the bravery of our heart warriors, the courage of our heart families and the generosity of the people of Northern Ireland and Children’s Heartbeat Trust.

This year, the Children’s Ambulance has demonstrated a beautiful collaboration between the CHT and Northern Irelands Specialist Transport and Retrieval Team and NIAS… It has been a joy and privilege to serve these organisations. Happy First Birthday to the Children’s Ambulance.”

CHT Team ❤️


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