"He held my head up for 30 minutes," injured James Schemer tells PEOPLE

By Simon Perry and Phil Boucher
August 04, 2017 09:09 AM

When tree surgeon James Schembri regained consciousness after being severely injured by a falling branch 60 ft. above the ground, he awoke to his head being cradled by a pilot as paramedics tended to him.

Just as he was about to be put into an ambulance in eastern England, Schembri, 38, remembered that a certain royal worked as a pilot in the local rescue crews.

“I just turned around and said, ‘[Prince] William had better not be flying this!’ And he said, ‘I’ve been holding your head for the last 30 minutes!’ I couldn’t believe it,” Schembri tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue.

Prince William final shift with East Anglian Air Ambulance, Cambridge, UK - 27 Jul 2017
Credit: REX/Shutterstock

“I was like, ‘Really? Well, you’d better come in and have a cup of tea with me when we get there then.’ He landed and came into the hospital and was there for around 45 minutes with me, chatting away and having a laugh and a joke while the trauma doctor worked on me.”

Prince William Qualifies as Search and Rescue Operational Captain - 01 Jun 2012
Credit: SAC Faye Storer/Rex / Rex USA

On July 26, the royal father of two, 35, announced that he is hanging up his flying helmet after two years of working for the East Anglian Air Ambulance. The move comes as he concentrates on his charities and supports his grandmother Queen Elizabeth, 91, while assuming a larger public role in royal duties.

Duke of Cambridge Begins First Shift As Air Ambulance Pilot
Credit: Stefan Rousseau WPA - Pool/Getty

During his years with East Anglian, William carried out hundreds of missions, many of which informed his current mental health campaign — including raising awareness of male suicide.

Duke of Cambridge Begins First Shift As Air Ambulance Pilot
Credit: Stefan Rousseau WPA - Pool/Getty

In a July 27 column for local paper Eastern Daily Press, he shared some of his “most daunting” incidents from his tenure.

“I have been invited into people’s homes to share moments of extreme emotion, from relief that we have given someone a fighting chance, to profound grief,” he wrote.

William is the first immediate heir to the throne to hold a civilian job. For more than two years, he has donated his $60,000 salary to charity and made the commute from the country home he shares in Norfolk with wife Kate and their children Prince George, 4, and Princess Charlotte, 2 — often well before dawn. (He has said he listened to BBC Radio One to make the drive go more quickly and even texted the early morning show — while parked and using a pseudonym.)

The Queen & Duke Of Edinburgh Open New Base Of East Anglian Air Ambulance At Cambridge Airport
Credit: Danny Martindale/WireImage

The royal hero will be missed by the locals in the four counties served by East Anglian: Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire. “He held my head up for 30 minutes, and he comforted me the whole time, telling me what he was doing,” recalls Schembri. “He was the first one to jump out of the helicopter and unload me out of the back door on a stretcher. He was brilliant.”

For more on Prince William’s heroism as an air ambulance pilot, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.