Monday, 27 August 2012

Lost Keys

The door shuts gently behind me, bringing to a close another shift, one that ended at a time normal humans call bedtime. I've left the world of the permanent nights behind, at least for now, choosing instead to pick the shifts I like, while I still can. The times are different, the hours fewer, the system new to me, but the work and the patients remain the same. 
Calls still come in for bad backs, three day old coughs, tight, crushing chest pains and accidents of all types. Cars still fight with each other for a small space on the tarmac, denting bodywork and pride as the space in between goes from narrowed to nothing. Bodies give way to gravity when the ladders beneath them collapse down to earth. Knives and bullets pierce the skin and cause untold, perhaps irreversible damage to the organs hidden from view. 

Here and there a life is saved, a soul is comforted, a child is born. 

Until the door shuts behind me, the shift isn't over and the processing doesn't begin. Most days there is nothing to trouble my thoughts, the patients merging one into the next, each occupying my mind for the duration of our stay with them, or theirs with us. Some leave an impression, a smile, perhaps, maybe a frown. At other times a question mark looms over the lasting imprint of their faces, the tale of their woes, the miracle of their survival. 

Some days, shutting the door behind me, ending the shift with a turn of the key, only signals the start of the process. 

It's bedtime. 

I go in to check on each of my already sleeping children, a habit often repeated several times each night since each was born, thankful that I am able just to stand, and stare, and watch them sleep in peace. I lock the front door, but in so doing, open the door to my own thoughts, trying to process the day. 

That door needs locking too, but all too often I can't find the keys. 

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Six Shifts

Half a dozen shifts at my new job, just over one handful of volunteer shifts, and I'm already known as a troublemaker.

I don't mean for it to happen, I just seem to attract it. That black cloud follows me even when the sky is a perfect blue for miles in every direction, the curse of the Jonah changing language and writing instead from right to left, merely translating the script rather than rewriting it.

My first two shifts were quiet. Very quiet. The traditional 3am maternity taxi on one shift and a simple chest pain to wake us at 4am on the other. With the average being one patient per shift, I started to believe that I was going to see as many patients in a fortnight as I used to see in a day. But then it happened.

The next two shifts were busy, starting slowly but once we were out, that was it for the rest of the shift, straying further and further from home until the clock finally ticked over to going home time. Only one call that really made us think, but that was more reflecting on reality rather than medically challenging.

The fifth shift started off the same - no call for over an hour. I'd warned the team on the ambulance that I used to attract all manner of trouble, but that I seem to have shaken off that curse somewhere over the Mediterranean. Although I did admit that the crews I had worked with on the previous two shifts had cursed me for making them busier than they had been in weeks. I made a coffee for the three of us and tweeted something about the quiet start.

I know. There it is. The Q word. I had barely pressed send when all hell seemed to break loose. The ghostly, detatched voice of the dispatcher came over the PA system and mobilised all three crews who were sitting on base at the time. The urgent tone in her voice wasn't lost on anyone, even the new boy.

"All units head for the highway, reports of multi-vehicle accident, possible fatality, possible multiple casualties."

The three ambulances drive in convoy, begging the traffic to move aside and let us through. The problem is a worldwide one, but sometimes seems worse in this country, as if giving way is some sort of slight on the pride of the driver, male or female, old or young.

Three cars, four trucks and a motorbike. Each one damaged in some way, mangled metal, twisted tyres and windows smashed to smithereens. One person is lying on the floor, intermittently wailing and screaming, then threatening that he's going to get the idiot that caused this, as well as his mother, grandmother and pet cat. It's the international sign of the nothing-wrong-brigade.

It's the silent ones you need to worry about. There's only one silent one, still sat at the wheel of his car. There's no-one for us to transport.

Clearing from the scene, barely two minutes pass before we are assigned to a new call.

"Unconscious child, fallen from height," says the dispatcher over the radio. "You're really having a day of it." Two pairs of eyes stare back at me, silence speaking louder than words. I shrug an "I told you so" type of shrug and we head off.

The child is fine, conscious and crying; possibly in pain, perhaps in fear. No obvious injury, but it's a little hard to be certain. Yet another example of children bouncing where adults would fall to pieces. Adventure is everything to a child, danger and fear are nothing, even when the danger presents itself as a fence three times the height of an average human. We transport him, a parent and a teddy bear, using my folder as a spinal board for the bear, taping him down and making him a collar out of the roll of tape.

At the hospital, I get the coffees and a bar of chocolate each.

"Any more tricks up your sleeve?" asks my paramedic colleague.

"Not planned any, unless you have anything in mind you'd like me to order."

"Let's just order a return to base. That's twice today that I've had to think."

A call to a shooting squawks over the airwaves the instant we clear at the hospital, but two minutes into the journey we're cancelled as two other ambulances cleared at a nearer hospital. The journey back to base is uneventful and we arrive as the clock strikes the hour for the end of shift.

"Just out of curiosity," says our driver for the day, "you back tomorrow?"

"No, not tomorrow. Got a couple of days off."

"Thank God for that." They both smile and head for home.

Two days later, as I'm walking with some friends down the main road near our home, there's a huge smash and a cloud of smoke billows up in the air. The incident itself is hidden from view by a 200 metre long and five metre high mound of earth that will soon be a park and playground. I walk up the mound of earth, reach the top and run down the other side. I'm just within earshot of my friend when he states the obvious.

"Oh oh. He's running."

The smashed front of one car and the destroyed rear of another come into view as I reach the top of the man-made hill. Airbags have been deployed, crumple zones crumpled, and the remains of a street sign lie tragically bent out of shape on the pavement. The driver of one car is already sitting on the pavement, shaken and shaking as I try to learn just the basics; name, age, pulse, medical issues, pain. The other car was parked, luckily unoccupied, its owner soon to discover his pride and joy is a tangled mass of metal. Someone, somewhere just out of field of vision, yells that they've called an ambulance.

Just six shifts in, yet I already recognise the growl of the engine as the ambulance approaches. They pull up alongside and the crew step out.

"I thought you had a couple of days off!"

"So did I..."