Friday, 26 August 2011

Dark Night

She sits and stares out of the window

Her mind as dark as the night,

her stare as blank as the moonless sky.

I stand at the door, afraid to walk in,

scared of how she'll react to a man, a stranger

getting too close. Again.

Her shirt is ripped, her hair a mess.

Makeup runs down her face,

teary streaks leave a stain as they silently drip

off her cheek and into her lap.

Her mother holds her close,

wiping away some of the tears, whilst

letting some others fall away.

"I swear," her father says, teeth clenched,

fists clenched, eyes troubled,

"If I ever catch him..."

The officer, a young lady, pretty as a picture

and unnaturally calm,

tells him he'll do no such thing, begs him

to let the police do their job,

so that he can concentrate on doing his.

Stepping back into role, he sits with them,

A husband, consoling his wife,

A dad, caring for his little girl.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011


"I know you," he says, his knock on the window jolting me out of my nocturnal daydream. "You picked me up when them cops came to my house! S'pose you don't remember." 


"Good memory you've got there." 

"What are you doing here at four in the morning?" 

"Oh, you know. This and that. Just hanging around." 

"Outside a hospital?"

"S'pose this is where I live now. Under section, in the nut house round the back. They just let me out for a smoke, but I ran off to get a better spot." 

Craig was dragged away from home a couple of weeks earlier by the police after destroying every piece of furniture in his house and threatening to set fire to the damaged remains. His mother begged us to let him stay at home, claiming it had never happened before, that he was just drunk, and that she'd look after him now. Two facts prevented that from happening. The first was the fact that it was taking the full force of several police officers to restrain him, and the second was the arterial bleed from his arm. 

Craig went back to sitting on the wall where he must have been perched before scaring the life out of me. It was three storeys up from the ground, with nothing between him and the concrete below. 

"You know, I'm pleased you're here. You can be my witness." 

"Witness for what, Craig?" 

"For me jumping off here. You can tell them that I meant it, that I didn't just fall." 

"Jumping? What do you want to do that for?" I sat there, frantically wracking my brain for a way to get some help without alerting him to the idea, but in the meantime I was happy that he just kept talking. 

He took a crumpled cigarette out of his pocket. "I 'spose you don't smoke, do you?"

"Nope. Never have done. Why?"

"Smoked since I was fourteen. Ten years that is. S'pose I knew then already that I wasn't going to have a long life. Twenty a day normally, sometimes thirty, forty. Even had a hundred once in one day, thought it would kill me there and then, but it didn't. Still here, aren't I? Still need my smokes. Still need some fresh air to smoke 'em. Pollute the air with smoke like they tried to pollute my mind. I know what they were doing to me in there!"

"In where, Craig?"

"There! The nut house!"

Craig pulled a lighter out that was tucked into his watch strap, made himself a little more comfortable on the edge of the wall and after a few attempts finally managed to light the cigarette. Two long drags later, he kept talking.

"I'm gonna finish the pack of twenty that I've got, and then that's it. I'm getting out. I've got this one and one more. That's it. No more smokes, no more police, no more hospitals, no more nothing. Glad you're here, anyway. I already told you that, didn't I?"

"You did. But I might be gone in a minute, if I get a call."

"S'pose I'll wait 'til you get back then."

As if on cue, the computer rang and sent me out into the night, heading in the vague direction of a jumbled set of coordinates on a map. Someone had called in from a mobile phone, and before the exact details are confirmed, the system works out which mast the call is routed through, and starts sending me there. The little red triangle on the map showed a point less than a mile away. Now that I finally had the chance, I called up control and let them know about Craig, where he was sitting, and that they need to send someone, anyone, to stop him from carrying out his threat.

A minute or so down the road, the details of the call finally came through.

Location: Nearby Hospital, by the A&E entrance. 

Details: Male, unknown age, threatening to jump off high wall. Ambulance car was on scene, now left. 

By the time I'd turned round and got back to where I started, two members of staff from the Mental Health unit were talking to Craig, as a police officer helped him off the wall. He looks up at me, perhaps confused by my swift return, perhaps amused by it.

"You know what," he says, as a pair of handcuffs are applied, "I'll do it one day, whether you're there, or anyone's there. Or not. S'pose it's back to the nut house. S'pose I'd better get another packet of smokes, though."

Friday, 19 August 2011

Gossip Monger

It's taken a while to get used to the new radios, not that they've been a bad thing, especially for someone who spends most of their time working solo. Prior to their arrival, the only communication we had with the control room was if we were still in the ambulance or the car. Failing that, we could use our own mobiles or even the patient's phone, sometimes dialling 999 if it was particularly urgent. Summoning police in a hurry often involved one of the crew running back to the ambulance and calling for help whilst leaving their partner facing whatever the danger was. A solo worker was even more isolated. 

There was, however, certainly as the people on the front line, one advantage to the old radios: they were an open channel. As long as you were on that channel, you could hear everything that was going on with all the ambulances in your sector, and therefore it was often the people you knew best. If you heard them calling for extra help, for whatever reason, you could call up and offer that help. Now the channels are blocked. Communications are direct between a radio and the control room. 

The airwaves are silent most of the time, except for the control room sending out "General Broadcasts" advising of calls waiting for ambulances, and other general information. Even these seem to have reduced in number now that they can send messages down the MDTs (mobile data terminals, or, for ease of use, the computer screens on which we get our calls). Communicating to the whole sector is still possible, but is very much frowned upon, except in one instance. If you need help in a hurry. 

On top of the new handsets is an orange button. Press and hold that for a second or two, and everyone else on your channel hears you. No need to push any buttons to talk, your mic is open and hands-free. Everyone else's radios flash bright, and make an alarming sound. In the control room the radio-op has a similar sequence of events and alarm bells sounding. Nine times out of ten, the next words you hear are a crew discussing how upset they are at yet another hospital banning them from the coffee and tea, or some slanderous gossip or rumour, or even someone dealing calmly with a patient. Nine times out of ten, the button has been accidentally pressed, control checks in to make sure that all is well, and nine times out of ten the crew will apologise and spend the next few minutes panicking about what may or may not have been said as the world and his wife were listening. 

A while back, I hit the orange button. On purpose. 

The next words everyone heard were probably a garbled stream, and would have looked good on an old-fashioned Batman TV show: 

"Get off!" "Step back!" THUD "Ow!" SMASH 

"Red Base, I need police on the hurry up!"

"Z751, are you OK?" Control actually sounded a little worried.

"NO!" BANG "I need police! NOW!" "OY, GET OFF!"

I think the magic of the hands-free open-mic only lasts for ten or twenty seconds, so that's probably all they heard. Luckily, probably. Profanities are not welcome across the ether. 

At that point, a crew turned up, not realising what they were about to walk in to, especially as they're on a different radio channel and hadn't heard my calls for help. An innocuous sounding call with little prior information other than the fact that the patient was crying doesn't normally call for any concern. 

The next few seconds, maybe minutes, are a bit hazy. One of the crew waded in trying to help get the patient away from me as the other called again for back-up. Between us we tried to get him down on the floor, both for our safety and his. We failed miserably. In the background I could make out the sounds of several sirens, and a few seconds later half a dozen police officers ran in. 

"Someone call the cavalry?" 

"Er, yes! He's all yours!"

In a blur of arms, legs, handcuffs, swear words, brute force and brilliant technique, the patient, high on illicit drugs and alcohol, was finally subdued and taken into custody. It took all six officers to deal with him, so my pride wasn't too dented by the fact that I couldn't do it on my own. Still, malicious thoughts (often spoken in jest) of using an oxygen cylinder as a weapon came all-too-close to being a reality. 

I drove back to station, covered in my blood and his, uniform ripped and with a sore shoulder and back. On the way back I phoned control to thank them for their prompt assistance and told them that during the events I'd made a new discovery. 

"What's that then?"

"I now know that the orange button isn't just for accidentally spreading gossip!" 

"Well, you say that, but now everyone's talking about you!"


Friday, 12 August 2011

Important Phone Call

The glucose slowly feeds its way out of the liver and up through the blood stream, finally reaching the brain and bringing Alan back to his senses. Glucagon is one of our miracle drugs, and it's always incredible to watch how a patient transforms from totally unconscious to completely alert within a very short space of time. Once Alan comes round he looks almost embarrassed, the reality dawning on him that it's happened again.

"How low this time?" Alan asks.

"Oh, 0.9. Quite impressive really." It's my third or fourth visit in the past few months, and there had been others too.

"I'm so sorry. I hate to bring you out like this, I know you've got better things to be getting on with."

Alan's daughter stood by the door watching what had become an all-too-common scene in the house, but despite the familiarity she looked nervous and on edge. She held a cordless phone and kept looking at it as if it was burning a hole in her hand.

"You OK?" I asked.

"Yes, thanks. Well, no, not really. I mean, yes, I'm OK. Sorry. A bit stressed. Waiting for a phone call. I'll go make dad a sandwich."

"Great, just what he needs and desperately doesn't want."

Alan gives me an amused look. "You know me well."

"Well, what do you expect if we keep meeting like this?" 

As his daughter heads for the kitchen, the phone rings.

"I'm sorry. I really have to get this. Can I leave you making a sandwich? Help yourself to a tea too if you want." Without waiting for a reply, she answers the phone and disappears upstairs. Finding my way round a strange kitchen, I make Alan the sugary tea that he despises and a jam sandwich that he doesn't mind so much. It's the staple diet of a post-hypoglycaemic diabetic. The emergency sugar stores that we steal from the body need replenishing, and it's the one time where diabetes and sugar are a relatively good combination.

I write as he eats, completing the never-ending paperwork that will end up in the growing pile of similar scrunched up and fading sheets. With a mouthful of food he tells me to write his daughter's name and number as the next-of-kin contact.

"Don't worry," he says, "she's not always on that thing. It's an important call, this one is."

"I don't doubt it." But he saw the look on my face and straight through my doubts. It seemed strange that whilst your dad is being treated, even if it's something you're used to, you'd find it more important to be on the phone.

"Ask her to tell you who it is on the phone when she comes back downstairs."

Alan finishes his food and drink, we chat for a few minutes longer, and I recheck his sugar levels, now a healthy 5.8. Just in time to see me opening the door, his daughter comes downstairs, tears streaming down her face, and I instantly feel guilty without knowing the reason why.

"That really was an important phone call, wasn't it?"

"It was. It really was. It was my husband, it's been almost a month since we've spoken. If I missed that call today, it could have been another two weeks."

"What does he do? Work on an off-shore rig or something?"

"Nearly. He's in Afghanistan."

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

London's Burning

We're a privileged lot, us ambulance people. We knock on people's doors, people we have never met before and in all likelihood will never see again, and they just let us in. In fact, not only do they allow us in, they invite us into their homes. Any time of the day or night, we knock on the door, strangers in every sense of the word, and step into somebody else's world, usually without any fear. And in these worlds, these homes, we see lives laid bare. Emotion at its most raw, sadness and anger in equal measure, happiness rarely, but for just a brief period we're allowed a quick peek into lives that not only do we not live, but often couldn't imagine. 

From beautiful homes, some bigger than my street, fenced off, gated properties with the rich and sometimes famous, to squalid apartments, crawling with rats and bearing a gut-wrenching smell that needs to be experienced to be understood, we see them all. 

We see happy families, smiling photos beaming down from the walls, and families torn apart by an unknown, unloved past. There are single parents, adopting and adopted families, children who grow up with everything they could wish for, and children who grow up with nothing. 

This country is the same as any other, the people here too. Most of us strive to make the best with what we have, to live our lives to our fullest potential, to be a member who contributes to a society in order to make it more livable, more comfortable for both ourselves and everyone else. These are the basics of human life, of being part of normal society. 

These last few days, starting in London and spreading around the country, have shown another side to our first world society. An ugly side, a threatening side, a destructive side. We've seen society at its worst. 

There's a sense of entitlement that exists amongst too many. It starts with people expecting to have everything handed to them on a plate. People don't want to have to think for themselves any more, so that where once, many years ago, ambulances would only be called in the most dire of circumstances, now a mere six hour old case of sinusitis is cause for a deferment of responsibilities onto somebody else. 

Let someone else tell me what to do, it's too hard to think for myself. 

I'm not a member of society, I'm me. And I'm the most important. 

What I want, I will have. 

The longer it goes on, the more it becomes ingrained as a norm. It's culminated over these past few days by several hundred people deciding that normal society just isn't for them. They don't want to be a part of it, and don't care about any other members of it. 

If I want a television, I'll just go and get one. 

If I want the latest trend in sportswear, I'll just smash my way into a shop and take it. 

That's not my house, or shop, so who cares if I set fire to it? 

This isn't a democratic exhibition of freedom. Freedom isn't expressed by attacking public and private property; homes, cars, even ambulances.

This isn't a political protest, aimed at changing any one of many government strategies or some perceived unfairness. 

This isn't the underprivileged minority, or a certain race, or only young men. The pictures tell a different story altogether. There's a huge mix. The demographics can't be narrowed down in any way, but the thought process can:

What's mine is mine, and what's yours is also mine. 

It starts with disregard for society as a whole and its rules; it's a disregard for private belongings, a disregard for public provisions, and eventually leads to a disregard for human life in general. We can consider ourselves lucky if all we do is count the cost in the number of human lives lost. But that is not all we've lost. People have lost their homes, their businesses, their streets. 

They have lost financially and physically. They have lost their pasts, their presents, their futures. But we, as a society, have lost a great deal more. 

We have lost our dignity. 

Now's the time to fight to get it back, and maybe, just maybe, by showing these criminal thugs and hoodlums that we care, by teaching them that there is another way, they might decide to rejoin society as valued members rather than self-proclaimed outcasts. 

And as I watch London burn, I can only hope. 

Thursday, 4 August 2011

The Night After

It was one of those nights. I only saw five patients. 

1) Drunk, fallen asleep in the street. Told me to get lost. Not quite as politely as that, however. Then proceeded to walk straight into a wall.

2) Drunk, fallen over in the street. Told me I need a shave, which I do, and that I speak good English for a Chinaman, which I'm not. Also, I need to go back to China, where I come from, "'cos we don't need no more foreigners in the country." Nice.

3) Drunk, fallen over at home, slightly apologetic. Slightly better natured than the previous two. Things were looking up. But not for long.

4) Drunk, violent and nasty, high on drugs to boot. I got covered in his blood as well as mine as I tried to stop him killing both himself and me, before the police turned up and looked after him. Things were looking grim again. 

5) Drunk, unconscious and very seriously injured after a high speed impact with the road. Definitely grim. Grim for me, as it was pouring with rain, but that's nothing. It's much more grim for him. He's probably going to die, assuming he hasn't already.

I'm back at work in a few hours. The night after the night before. I hope it's a better one. For everyone.