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First Children’s Ambulance in NI launched in Belfast

26th January 2023

NISTAR staff standing beside the Children's Ambulance

Yesterday, Northern Ireland’s first bespoke children’s ambulance was officially launched at the Titanic Hotel in Belfast.

Every year, approximately 200 children are born with congenital heart disease in NI. In the last 12 months the Northern Ireland Specialist Transport and Retrieval Service (NISTAR) made 123 trips to or from Dublin with children needing cardiac treatment or surgery. Eighty-seven percent of those journeys were made by children under the age of one, with the remaining journeys made by children and young people between one and sixteen years old.

NISTAR Lead Nurse, Emma Thompson, was inspired to make changes to the environment in the ambulance followed feedback from a patient on the first nurse-led transfer,

“Clinically, we can look after children really well. The team have all the skills and equipment they need, but the environment for the children just wasn’t right. We thought, what can we do differently to make the experience as enjoyable as it possibly can be? The idea was then born to have an ambulance that’s interior was specifically tailored for children to ensure they have a positive experience.”

The purpose was clear – to provide children and their families with a welcoming and comforting space in which to travel at a time when anxiety is often at an all-time high.

As well as being fully equipped with the latest specialist medical equipment, the dedicated children’s ambulance has a number of features including space-themed décor on the interior walls, sensory equipment to calm younger children and PlayStation and Tablet facilities to help entertain our young people during the journey. The ambulance is also adapted with wheelchair tracks, enabling older children to make the journey in a wheelchair as opposed to a trolley. ​​​​​​​

​​​​​​​Following a hugely successful ‘Mile A Day’ fundraising campaign in 2021, the Children’s Heartbeat Trust raised over £133,000 which enabled the charity to commission the bespoke ambulance with the support of NISTAR and the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service.

Chief Executive of Children’s Heartbeat Trust, Joanne McCallister, says that the launch of the ambulance is extremely positive for the families assisted by the charity.

“Through our work, we’ve seen first-hand just how stressful travelling backwards and forwards to hospital with an ill child can be. It is a very traumatic time for both children and parents, who often have to take time off work to care for their child which can lead to financial pressures, especially in the current economic climate,” explained Joanne.

“Children’s Heartbeat Trust already supports families emotionally, socially and financially, and our main motivation behind the creation of the ambulance was to help make perhaps one of the most frightening and difficult journeys that little bit easier.”

“We hope that the interior look and feel of the ambulance, alongside all the entertainment features available, will put children and their parents more at ease and take their minds off the hospital treatment ahead.”  

Edel McInerney, from Lisburn, whose four-year-old son, Fionn, suffers from Tricuspid Atresia Hypoplastic Right Heart Syndrome, says that the new ambulance will be “lifechanging” and have a “phenomenal” impact on local families.“Since Fionn was born, we have made multiple journeys to Dublin for scheduled and emergency surgeries which has been extremely stressful. Essentially, only one side of Fionn’s heart works. His oxygen levels are low and he needs regular visits and tests at the Clarke Clinic Cardiology Department,”

“Thinking back to the early days, those trips to Dublin were terrifying – it was literally life and death. I always worried that he would wake up and see the tubes and hear the beeping of the machines. He was oblivious then, but now he’s more aware of his surroundings which leads to a lot of fear.”

Speaking about the introduction of the first children’s ambulance, Edel adds: “Having a purpose-built children’s ambulance with all the critical lifesaving equipment and the added sensory and playful atmosphere will help to take his mind away from the scary reality of living with a critical illness. The new ambulance will be like Fionn’s battleship, preparing him mentally and physically for the next fight.”


NISTAR Nurse, Emma Thompson, Ciaran McKenna from NIAS, Children's Heartbeat Trust CEO, Joanne McCallister pose beside the Children's Ambulance outside Titanic Belfast with Fionn and his mum Edel with the Children's Heartbeat Trust teddy bear.

NISTAR Nurse, Emma Thompson, Ciaran McKenna from NIAS, Children's Heartbeat Trust CEO, Joanne McCallister pose beside the Children's Ambulance outside Titanic Belfast with Fionn and his mum Edel.

Emma Thompson from NISTAR can’t wait to get the vehicle on the road!

“Congratulations to Children’s Heartbeat Trust and NIAS for getting this fantastic project off the ground. We are delighted to add this unique vehicle into our fleet, and we are confident that it will complement the clinical expertise of our team.  We have no doubt that it will go a long way to providing a comforting space in what can be a very frightening time for children and their families.”