Monday, 30 December 2013


Some days I feel like the Angel of Death's right hand man. It's almost as if he's sitting on my shoulder, bidding me to do his work, waiting for me to feed him another soul.

The shift starts with a family member or a carer discovering that their relative or ward has died peacefully during the night. We march in, carrying equipment that we know will be totally redundant. Oxygen, where the tap will remain unopened. A box full of drugs that will number the same when we leave as they did when we entered. A monitor that will do nothing but paint a long, straight, lifeless line on a strip of paper, telling us and the family what we already know. All too often we are still there as the reality of loss strikes home. Sometimes slowly, gently creeping into the minds of those around; sometimes it hits with the full force of a tsunami wave. Before we leave, we comfort the bereaved, we mutter words, platitudes, practicalities, and then go back into the world outside that just carries on as if nothing has happened - unlike the four walls that we have just left, within which the world has suddenly stopped. The Angel has won.

Then there's a call for someone who's dizzy.

Yet another for someone in pain.

And we treat them with care, give them attention, tend to their needs, transport them to the hospital. In the short time it takes me to walk back from the emergency department to the ambulance, all too often I have forgotten their basic details, like a name, or age, or chief complaint. By the end of the day I barely remember these calls at all. And the Angel lurks bored in the background.

And then again there's a call: to someone who has stopped breathing. But this time, someone was watching as they took their last breath. We drive fast, arrive into the confusion and chaos and panic and fright. This time we have a chance. We open the oxygen, we give them the drugs, we beat hard on their chest, we breathe for them, pump blood around the body for them. Try our damndest for them as all around people are crying or screaming or praying or silent. But after a while, twenty minutes, forty minutes, an hour, we are defeated. Death has beaten life, as if the Angel is ironing out the last of the ups and downs on the monitor, leaving that long, flat, lifeless line again.

Then there's a call for someone short of breath. They have nothing more than a cold.

Then there's a call for someone whose blood sugar has fallen so low that they're unconscious, or confused, or violent. We fill their blood stream with dextrose which brings them out of their stupor. All too often they are embarrassed and apologetic. Nine times out of ten we leave on the best of terms, but every so often we need to force a trip to the hospital. All the while, the Angel slumbers.

Then there's a call for someone who's fallen and can't get up. We help them up, dust them down, sometimes make them a tea or coffee. We look at pictures of their grandchildren, or take an interest in their books, or listen to an abridged life story. Often we leave with a smile and a smirk at the Angel. Sometimes, that smile fades in the blink of an eye.

There's a baby turning blue. Can't breathe. Floppy. And we're miles away.

These sorts of journeys happen in an eerie sort of silence. No words are spoken, no thoughts-out-loud. Only the wail of the siren permeates the air, helping us push through traffic as fast as we can, but it never seems quite fast enough. Yet, when we arrive, with the Angel looking over our shoulders, we take hold of the baby.

She's breathing. Shallow, struggling breaths, her shoulders and ribs working twice as hard as they should be, trying to expand her lungs and feed them the oxygen they crave. And the Angel stares, prepares, dares us as he heats his iron, yet all the while we beat him back. We feed her oxygen, drugs, put up defensible borders, give her a fighting chance. We carve our way through the traffic again, to hospital, hand her over to the staff and breathe a sigh of relief when we hear a beautiful noise.

She's crying.

We clear up, tidy the back of the ambulance and prepare it for the next call, and finish the paperwork. Just before we leave, we go back to check on the baby, whose cries have subsided as she finally catches her breath and her face slowly breaks into a wary smile. As we step into the room, her mother finally sees us, as if for the first time, even though she was with us all along. 

"Do you know what you people are?" she asks, as she gently strokes her baby's face. "You're angels. Nothing short of angels."

I look over my shoulder, see no-one there,  and smile.