WHETHER on the frontline at the mercy of Taliban sniper attacks or on the busy wards of the Great Western Hospital, nurse Cheryl Kelser’s commitment to patients is unwavering.
The RAF reservist reported for duty at the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit yesterday in her service uniform to celebrate the thousands of civilians who, like her, risk their lives in international conflicts.
While her unexpected get-up surprised a few of her colleagues and puzzled patients, it also drew praise and interest from all those unaware of her double life as a flight nurse, trained in combat and charged with transporting servicemen and women, as well as Afghan soldiers, to safety.
“I didn’t want to just be a plain old nurse and I wanted to take nursing elsewhere, to a different environment,” said the mother-of-one from Wroughton, who came to GWH as an auxiliary nurse 17 years ago.
“It’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever done but the most challenging and enjoyable in a strange way. My role is to extract patients from the area. We take people back to the UK. We also transfer Afghan nationals, army, police and children to other hospitals in the country. I’ve also treated detainees.
“There you deal with people with shrapnel wounds and loss of limbs. You have to think on your feet in the air. It’s all controlled in a hospital but if something goes wrong you’re stuck in the air. You have to think about the pressure increase because it can increase bleeding. People can also become sick because the oxygen levels drop.”
After qualifying as a nurse in 2005 Cheryl joined the Royal Air Force as an aeromedical evacuation nurse.
She was sent on her first tour of Afghanistan in 2008 to Kandahar, and then to Camp Bastion in 2011. In just her last tour she transferred more than 725 patients.
The 51-year-old, who includes in her many qualifications bereavement counsellor and beauty therapist, was keen to raise the profile of reservists and give her colleagues an insight into her tours of duty at the heart of war-torn Afghanistan.
“We’ve been shot at several times going over Lashkar Gah,” she added.
“And in August 2011 I was involved in a sniper attack. We were on the ground and we were transferring a patient to an ambulance.
"You just get down on the ground until the alarm goes off, and when it’s safe you extract your patient and get them to cover. There was a burn pit behind me and it was raging with all this smoke; there was a sniper and an IED (improvised explosive device).
“There is a massive risk. But it has given me so many opportunities. I am very proud and the trust has been very accommodating.”