An inspirational Cardiff grandmother, who started sea swimming after recovering from sepsis, has taken part in a water challenge to raise vital funds for the Wales Air Ambulance.

Lee O’Brien, 59, of Llandaff North, is one of hundreds of people across Wales who took part in the Charity’s fundraiser Splash 21, which saw entrants immerse themselves in water 21 times during the month of September to celebrate the 21st anniversary of the Wales Air Ambulance.

Despite several health conditions, the grandmother-of-four was keen to take part in the challenge and raise money for the Charity that is close to her heart.  She managed to brave the cold water and swim 21 times consequently in the sea in Barry. Among her supporters were her sea swimming group, The Watchtower Waders. Lee joined the group two years ago, months after being hospitalised due to sepsis and Covid-19.

Lee spent three weeks in the University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff, including time in ICU after she collapsed at home in May 2020.

She said: “It is believed the sepsis was caused by an infection in my gallbladder. I don’t remember anything and at first it was thought I had suffered a stroke. Whilst I was in hospital, I caught Covid-19 and was very ill. Everything was very much a blur, and it still is all a bit vague. It took me 18 weeks to get back on my feet and start to recover.

“Prior to Covid I used to enjoy going swimming. I would regularly go with my daughter Rachael and my two grandsons to the pool. I wanted to do some form of exercise but was limited as to what I could do as I have back problems and I am waiting for spinal surgery.

“I found a sea swimming group in Penarth that swim at sunrise every day and I started swimming with them for a few months. Then, I heard about the Watchtower Waders, who swim in Watchtower Bay in Barry. When I joined in September 2020, there were only about 15 in the group, now there are 1,400 of us.”

During September, Splash 21 participants took the plunge in a variety of different ways. Whether it was swimming in the local pool, having a freezing bath, showering under a waterfall, or relaxing in a hot tub, supporters all played their part in celebrating the Wales Air Ambulance’s milestone.

The Charity launched on St David’s Day in 2001 and has since carried out more than 43,000 missions to date. It provides vital 24/7 emergency air cover for those who face life-threatening illness or injuries and is the only air ambulance charity based in and dedicated to Wales.  

Lee wanted to take part in the Splash 21 challenge to help raise vital funds for the lifesaving charity.

She said: “I see the helicopter flying over my house every day as the Health Hospital is near my house. They fly over me when I am swimming in the bay, and I think they do an amazing job. I have always supported the Wales Air Ambulance and I give a monthly donation.

“Splash 21 was the perfect challenge as I love outdoor swimming. I love the cold water and I don’t hesitate to dive in. I love being out in the great outdoors and it is so relaxing. There are so many positives, and it is great for mental health. 

“I usually swim for an hour, sometimes twice a day including night swimming. When you get out your legs don’t feel your own and I love the comradery afterwards when we sit and drink hot drinks and have a chat.

“During the challenge, I took a picture every day for 21 days. The group were so supportive. They were cheering me on, clapping and on the last day they threw me up in the water. I have had problems with my weight as I have not been able to walk, now the weight is starting to fall off me. I have been in liver and kidney distress and now they are starting to improve.

“Before joining the group, I was sitting in the house doing nothing. I didn’t have a life, apart from my grandkids. I managed to raise £545 for the Wales Air Ambulance and that is nearly all from the Watchtowers Waders. I plan to many more challenges, alternating them between the Wales Air Ambulance and the RNLI.”  

Laura Coyne, Community Fundraiser for Wales Air Ambulance, said: “Congratulations to Lee for taking part in our Splash 21 event and raising £545 for the Wales Air Ambulance. She committed to 21 sea swims in a row and the fact that she had fun whilst raising money is fantastic.

“The Splash 21 saw people of all ages immersing themselves in water, many of whom braved the cold weather to help support our campaign and celebrate the 21 years of our wonderful Charity.

“Well done to everyone for taking part and sending in your fantastic photographs. Your donations will go towards helping the Charity continue its lifesaving work across Wales.” 

There are several ways that the public can continue to support the Wales Air Ambulance. These include online donations, signing up to the Charity’s Lifesaving Lottery or by coming up with their own innovative ways to fundraise at home. Further information can be found via  

Alternatively, a £5 text-message donation can be made by texting the word HELI to 70711.