SSAFA helps repatriate critically ill veteran from Cambodia

19 November 2020

When a British Army veteran was taken injured and disorientated to a Cambodian hospital in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, an international effort began to get him back to the UK.

Suffering from an unknown neurological condition, Tom Rayner’s life was at risk, but thanks to care coordinated by SSAFA, the Armed Forces Charity, American counterpart The Veterans of Foreign Wars of the US charity (VFW), and Tom’s family in the UK, he pulled through. Tom has now been repatriated to Wiltshire where he is receiving hospital care. Though showing only small signs of recovery, his family are extremely relieved to have him home.  

It was terrifying being so far away not knowing what was going on.

Tom Rayner, a former lieutenant in the 7th Parachute Regiment Royal Horse Artillery, lived for several months of the year in a hostel in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. In April, he was found outside of his hostel room, unable to walk, mentally incapacitated. He was unaware where he was, or what was happening to him.

Tom was taken to a large public hospital, the Calmette. His family were desperate to be by his side but were prevented from travelling due to the Covid-19 crisis lockdown measures. Tom’s mother, Anne, contacted SSAFA’s Forcesline to see if the charity could help, and they initiated the process to get Tom access to the right care and to get him home.

“There was an incident, but no one quite knows what happened to Tom because no one saw it,” his brother, Ed, explains.

“Twenty-five years ago, Tom received a horrific head injury when he was on a UN tour in Cyprus. He miraculously survived, but that somewhat reduced his mental capacity and led to him leaving the Army.. Over time he also developed epilepsy, which he did not manage well. It’s likely this played a part in his current condition.

“He came out of his room confused, with a fracture on his right ankle, completely unable to function. He was unable to engage or cooperate with the medical care provided at the hospital, removing drips, casts and refusing scans. The hospital itself was not well equipped to deal with such a condition, but did the best they could in the circumstances. Fortunately, in that first week, a man called Ray Walsh, who was staying at the same hostel, visited Tom daily with food and water, and ensured that he was being looked after, despite not knowing him well. He was unbelievable in his support. 

“It was terrifying being so far away not knowing what was going on. This all happened in the middle of a worldwide crisis and we had a language barrier to contend with. My mum and I were phoning around, trying to find out what was happening and trying to find someone who could help. I couldn’t fly out because of Covid-19 and also because I was in a brace with a broken kneecap, otherwise I would have been on the first flight out.

“Fortunately, we knew about SSAFA as a family. My mum is an ex-Royal Air Force wife, and one of her neighbours is a SSAFA volunteer. I emailed Caroline Murphy who works for Forcesline, the charity’s helpline, and she put me in touch with Mark Watson, Branch Chairman for SSAFA Thailand, which covers Asia Pacific.”

They were just perfect in everything they did

Mark referred the case to Tim Bryant, the Branch Secretary whose friend Roy Day is an official of the VFW charity. Roy lived in Phnom Penh, which was crucial at a time when travel across borders was prohibited. Together Tim and Roy liaised to ensure Tom’s safety was assured.

Roy visited Tom in hospital where he was found in a poor state. He and Tim, with the family’s financial support, arranged to move him to a different hospital that had the facilities to manage his condition. Tom’s condition stabilised and Roy arranged for accommodation, 24-hour nurse and carer support, physio treatment and coordinated a multi-agency approach to get Tom to the UK.

Roy and Tim engaged with the US Embassy, US military, British Embassy Cambodia and British Embassy Bangkok for help with Tom’s case.

To ensure he was fit to fly, Roy contacted the US Medical Attaché from the US Embassy in Cambodia, who conducted several visits, reviewed and amended his medication, and eventually arranged a US Embassy fit to fly certificate after Tim had arranged specialist neurological and psychiatric evaluations. The SSAFA and VFW team also secured the services of a nurse and chaperone to escort Tom home.

“Roy Day was just phenomenal” Ed recalls. “He spent many, many hours a day for over a month looking after Tom. He did an astonishingly magnificent job.

“And Tim liaised with me regularly, giving me updates and suggestions on the next steps. It was enormously comforting and practical to have him and SSAFA supporting me. 

“Tim is experienced with military and civilian repatriations. Together he and Roy arranged every tiny detail, from ensuring Tom would get through customs smoothly, securing wheelchair facilities at the airport to getting him a haircut before he came home. 

“They were just perfect in everything they did, communication, support, planning, coordination and care. The care given was exceptionally professional, well beyond any call of duty.

“Navigating the system has been extremely difficult, not knowing which agencies to speak to and what help is available. SSAFA has been really good at guiding us; lack of information is often the biggest barrier, so their help was so important. Everyone I have spoken to at SSAFA has been phenomenally helpful, from that very first email I sent.”

We are just so glad to have him home

When Tom arrived back in the UK, his brother Ed immediately took him to be admitted to hospital in Swindon where he is currently still receiving help.

“It was quite difficult to access NHS care because his situation was unusual and had flown in from overseas during a pandemic, but eventually he was admitted and the care he has received has been fantastic ever since.” Ed explained.

“Sadly his condition hasn’t improved all that much.

“We still don’t have a clear idea of what happened and what is causing his condition. He’s had scans and excellent treatment, but a definitive diagnosis is difficult.

“However, we are just so glad to have him home. It’s comforting being able to see him and the care he is receiving, and we hope he will be taken to a specialist neurological centre of rehabilitation in due course.

“I am forever grateful to SSAFA and the people that supported Tom in his care and getting him home. In particular Ray who helped when he was first taken to hospital, Tim who helped to coordinate support and kept us so well informed, and of course Roy who spent hours with Tom, carrying out the work on the ground, giving extraordinary care.

“The coordination between SSAFA and VFW in particular was exceptional and I hope this form of cooperation will help any veteran in need for years to come.”

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