Tony Heffernan speaks to Tiernan Cannon about one of the Saoirse Foundation’s main projects, the BUMBLEance children’s ambulance service.
It is difficult to imagine a pain more harrowing than a parent accompanying their critically-ill child on what they know to be their last journey home. It is a pain that Tony and Mary Heffernan know only too well; both their children were diagnosed with the extremely rare and fatal neurodegenerative disorder, Batten disease. Their daughter Saoirse passed away in 2011, their son Liam in 2014. Both children were aged five at the times of their deaths.
In the wake of these terrible tragedies, the Heffernans set up the Saoirse Foundation. The foundation’s first project, Bees for Battens, provides parents, families, and all those affected by Batten disease in Ireland with a support network and a credible source of information regarding the disease. The foundation’s second project was the BUMBLEance.
Launched in 2013, BUMBLEance offers professional medical transportation services for long-term sick and seriously disabled children that require ambulance transportation to and from their homes and their principal centres of care. It also offers another very important service, which it refers to as ‘angel trips’. An angel trip is when parents travel in the back of the BUMBLEance with their child as they undertake their final journey on earth. Angel trips provide a compassionate and caring journey that allows families to concentrate entirely on the short time they have left together. The first ever angel trip transported the Heffernans’ son Liam on his final journey home, so it’s an experience that the founders are familiar with.
The BUMBLEance service is based on a core principle of positivity, removing the inherent stresses associated with an ambulance trip for both the child and their family, and to make the trip as fun as possible for the child. “Our aim is to distract, comfort and entertain Ireland’s youngest patients as they travel to and from treatment centres nationwide, and to ensure the smoothest and safest journey possible, for both carer and patient, from home to destination,” says Tony Heffernan, CEO of the Saoirse Foundation.
The BUMBLEance’s unique interior is kitted out with a DVD player, iPad, games console and a fridge for food, drinks and medicine. The vehicle has onboard Wi-Fi and games consoles, as well as sensory lighting and music to soothe and pacify its young patrons, and reading and colouring books. Currently, there are three BUMBLEance vehicles on the road. BUMBLEance 1 is used for interhospital transfers, with BUMBLEance 2 being used for seriously and critically ill children who need transportation to and from hospitals and care centres. BUMBLEance 3 is used as a back-up vehicle for trips, and as a PR vehicle. The PR element to BUMBLEance 3 has proven to be immensely successful, with the vehicle generating income and awareness at festivals, events and corporate showcases nationwide.
Since its launch in September 2013, BUMBLEance 1 has transported 622 children, travelling over 200,000 km to every county in Ireland. It has facilitated 64 angel trips in that time. The people behind the project, however, hope to expand their services even further. “Our plans for future expansion include the roll out of a backup BUMBLEance 4 service, which will be Dublin-based and operated by Dublin Fire Brigade staff on a voluntary basis,” Heffernan explains. Further expansion includes a brand new regional BUMBLEette service – what is essentially a smaller version of the BUMBLEance. “The BUMBLEette service [facilitates] young patients who do not require full ambulance support with a paramedic on board, but who nonetheless are seriously ill and will require transportation to and from paediatric hospitals, respite care centres and hospices throughout Ireland,” Heffernan adds.
The BUMBLEette service is due to be rolled out nationwide over the coming years, with the first service – which will serve the North West region – having launched in the first quarter of 2017. By the close of 2018, the regional BUMBLEette services are estimated to make over 2,000 trips per year across the whole country. “Our fleet will grow to nine vehicles in the next two years, and each vehicle will then be available for operating 250-plus days each year, helping children across rural and urban areas, getting them to where they need to be in safe, reliable and modern vehicles,” says Heffernan.
The BUMBLEette vehicles themselves will enable the transportation of a driver and two children in wheelchairs with one caregiver or parent each, or a driver plus a fully operational stretcher and four seated passengers. They will be kitted out with the same child-friendly toys and gizmos that make the existing BUMBLEance vehicles what they are, ensuring that their young clients are as comfortable and happy as possible.
The BUMBLEance project was created by parents who understand the struggle of caring for a sick child, and Tony Heffernan and his team work tirelessly to ensure the smoothest and most enjoyable journey for everyone on board – parents and children alike. “We understand how stressful it is to transport a sick child, which is why we will be with you every step of the way,” he says.