Perseverance helps save lives

Efforts to start air ambulance pay off

Known in Cayman as a teacher, Ann Ralli is more well known in her local Devon for a tragedy to triumph tale that saw a one woman crusade result in the establishment of the Devon Air Ambulance service. 

The catalyst for Ms Ralli’s work was the loss of the eldest of her four children, Ceri Thomas, to an accident when he was just 18. 

“When we lost Ceri, we were there pretty much when it happened and then we had to wait a long time for land ambulances to arrive. It wasn’t anything bad, that is just the way it is, living in the country,” she recalls. 

The ambulance arrived some 20 minutes later and the crew did what they could on the way to the hospital. However, in spite of their best efforts, Ceri died. 

“When we heard that he had died I asked the surgeon ‘Was there anything that could have saved him’ and he said, ‘Well, it was bad but a helicopter might have made a difference’ so that went round in my head,” she said. 

Although this was a tough time for the family dealing with the loss of a son and brother, Ms Ralli often found herself thinking about the doctor’s suggestion that an air ambulance might have made a difference. As neighbouring Cornwall did have an air ambulance, she decided to follow up with them on how it came about. She found out that the service was funded by a charity, but when she spoke to local health authorities about it, they had their reservations. 

“They could see I was just a little person, I had no business experience, so they thought this little woman is on an emotional crusade. I’m sure they thought I would get everybody wanting an air ambulance and thinking it was a very good idea, and then I would fail, which I nearly did several times, and then I would leave these people crying for an air ambulance and they would have to do something,” she recalls. 

However, even though she did not get the immediate support she had hoped for, Ms Ralli was not going to give up easily. She knew that if the campaign were to stand any chance of success she would have to start it off with a blaze of publicity and she would need the support of the public. She managed to secure the involvement of a company that operated a private air ambulance service and decided to have a weekend during which the air ambulance would land in numerous locations throughout the county and give demonstrations of what an air ambulance service can achieve. 

Ms Ralli’s big break came when the Dean of Exeter Cathedral gave permission for the helicopter to land in Cathedral Square, something that had never happened before. This generated a lot of publicity and got the appeal off to a strong start. However, the hard work of raising the necessary funding had just started. Ms Ralli knew that big companies were not likely to back the project at the outset, as there were too many uncertainties. 

For a start, she had to get a charity set up in order to be certain that everything would be done right.  

“I got a lawyer friend, a doctor friend, people who had some standing in the community, because I had none,” she said. 

She named the appeal for her son, Ceri Thomas, something she admits kept her going when she might otherwise have given up. 

“At times when it nearly died, when I felt terribly defeated, if it had been about me I might have given up, but I felt that I can’t drag his name through this demeaning, awful failure,” she says. 

Along with her daughter Antonia, who was only 11 at the time, Ms Ralli went to speak to anyone who would listen, from service clubs to groups like young farmers clubs and equestrian clubs who stood to benefit greatly from the presence of an air ambulance. 

“I didn’t ask for money. I said ‘I want you to go and raise it for me, because if you are so generous I might get £50 here tonight, but if you each go out and raise the money, we’ll get thousands and thousands of pounds’,” she recalls. 

Ms Ralli still recalls one particular young farmer who came up to her after a meeting and said she he would go out and raise money, but she could also have everything he had on him. 

“He emptied his pockets and I think he had about £20 on him. Those sorts of things kept you going,” she says. 

Throughout the process, Ms Ralli knew that the very emotions that were driving her tireless quest could also just as easily be the source of her undoing. 

“I knew that I couldn’t go and start wobbling because people would just get embarrassed, so I had to almost distance myself, I had to go in and I didn’t want this weeping, emotional woman, I had to be very sure,” she says. 

However, raising the money would not be easy. Ms Ralli knew that they would need £500,000 to fund the helicopter for a year and then find a way to guarantee that income over future years in order to keep the service running. Many people scoffed at the idea that she could do it without corporate support. 

“They said ‘Oh, you’re going to make jam are you dear?’ Well, yes actually. And have a jumble sale. Then someone cut his hair off, and someone sponsored a run, and all these people did extraordinary things and it made a little splash in the paper. Then other people thought ‘Well, I could do that’ and so it spread and spread,” she says. 

Even though the charity now receives widespread support, Ms Ralli says that it is still the public that 
carry it. 

“It took two years, and we were able to say we’ve raised the whole amount of money to run it for a whole year and we’ve set up an annual fete, we had donation boxes, we had a lottery, we had other regular things that happened, so much so that we knew we would have this income, and so at the end of two years they were convinced, they had the money and we had the future set up as it were, so the actual service was launched,” Ms Ralli recalls. 

On 30 July, 1992, the air ambulance landed at Cathedral Green in Exeter, where the helicopter and crew were blessed by the Bishop of Exeter. On the side of the helicopter was Ceri Thomas’ name. 

“The emotion was overwhelming. I, along with many others along the way, had achieved what we had set out to do. Ceri’s life had not been in vain,” Ms Ralli says. 

Although the service had been launched, it was now a question of whether it would prove its use.  

“When it was launched that first week we thought ‘Is it going to be silent? Is there going to be nothing?’, but within a couple of days it was called out on an emergency. The air ambulance got there in two minutes and that made such publicity that after that it had saved a life as far as everyone was concerned,” Ms Ralli recalls. 

The air ambulance has since flown some 18,000 missions and saved thousands of lives. Over time, the charity has grown such that Devon now owns its own air ambulance and leases a second one, with a second helicopter set to be purchased next year. 

Ms Ralli recently attended a 20th anniversary celebration of the air ambulance service and was overwhelmed by the gratitude shown by many people whose lives had been touched by the air ambulance. 

“It was very moving because people came up to me and said ‘Thank you for my child’ or ‘Thank you for saving my son’. It was very humbling and pretty wonderful,” she says. 

Ceri Thomas’ name is still on the side of the helicopters, ensuring that his memory lives on. 

“It is because of him that people are alive today. I might have done all this, but it was because of him that I never let it drop when it became too hard,” Ms Ralli said. 

Getting the project off the ground had left Ms Ralli drained physically, emotionally but also financially and she felt she needed a change of scenery. 

She decided to head off to Kuwait, followed by a stint in Hong Kong, where she was joined by her daughter Antonia, before eventually coming to the Cayman Islands as a teacher at Cayman Prep in 2003, with Antonia joining her again. Ms Ralli works for the Private Schools Association, filling in and tutoring where needed. 

Looking back, Ms Ralli finds it hard to believe that she had managed to achieve so much and is still amazed at the support she received from all the other ‘little people’ who helped to make something amazing possible. 

“I want people to know that even if they are only an ordinary person they can do it, they don’t have to be important, they don’t have to have huge resources. You just need to get other people to help you and they do their bit, that’s the crux of it. People can make a difference,” she says.