It’s five years since I began the Nee Naw blog. Back then, I thought that few people beyond my real life friends would be interested. I was delighted when it started getting over fifty readers per day. Four years later, that became in excess of three thousand readers and, beyond my wildest dreams, a book deal!
I have had some brilliant experiences because of this blog. For instance, appearing live on Radio Four (and nervously talking nonsense about stink bombs), being the subject of a four page spread in The Times, having boxes of Percy Pigs unexpectedly turn up in the post and seeing my book sandwiched between Cheryl Cole and Russell Brand in the biography section (though I was less impressed to find it in the “Tragic Life Stories” section at Smiths in Walthamstow). I will never forget all the great people at Penguin who worked so hard with me to make my book just how I dreamed it would be. But best of all are the emails I got (and am still getting) from readers, who tell me that they’ve learned something from me, and that because of Nee Naw they’ve managed to stay calm in an emergency, or go on a first aid course, or even apply to become an EMD like me!
Unfortunately, my fifteen minutes of fame also had its downside, and without going into detail, in the end I felt I had no alternative but to bring Nee Naw to its end. I’m posting this now because I don’t want you to think that I’ve dropped off the face of the earth, or taken the money and run. I miss my blog more than you can imagine. Sometimes on my break I will sit mentally composing blog posts from the day’s calls, then I realise there is no longer anywhere for them to go, and those posts shrivel and die. As a blogger without a blog, sometimes I feel like I have shrivelled and died a little bit too.
Some days I think of starting a new blog, about one of my other passions – Leyton Orient? Katie Price? Percy Pigs? I can’t imagine many people would want to read that, let alone publish it, and maybe that’s the whole point.
Until then, I’d just like to thank everyone for reading and supporting me for these last five years.
Goodbye for now!
It was the middle of the afternoon on Christmas Day, and a desperate sounding old lady called 999.
“Do you know where they’ve taken my husband?” she begged. “He only popped out for some gravy. I didn’t realise we’d run out, you see. The shop is only down the road! An hour later, he hadn’t come back from the shop, so I went round there myself. They said a man fitting his description had collapsed and they’d called an ambulance!”
“What’s the address of the shop?” asked the call taker. (Although we are not allowed to give out details of calls and where patients have been taken because of the data protection act, we can give callers information that might help them find a relative, like suggesting which hospital to call.)
The call taker inputted the address of the shop. It was at this point the call appeared on my screen.
I knew exactly where her husband was.
“Have you tried ringing Queens A+E?” said the call taker.
“Yes, they said no one of his name had been brought in!” said the old lady.
I knew why that was too.
When the ambulance crew arrived, her husband had been in cardiac arrest. His heart had only just stopped beating, so the crew had worked on him all the way to hospital. No one in the shop knew his name or where he lived and there was no time to find out. He was booked into A+E as “Unknown Male”. It was only when the doctors decided to terminate the resus attempt that attention turned to identifying him. We’d called the police – thankfully, tracing the relatives of unidentified deceased people is not one of our jobs.
The call taker read all of this on the log of the call. Then he went back to the old lady. In a careful, measured voice, he took the old lady’s details and logged them on the call. He told her to stay at home and someone would be in touch. He couldn’t tell her where her beloved husband was, but he knew that very soon, the police would be interrupting her Christmas afternoon to tell her that her husband lay dead in Queens Hospital, wearing a tag reading “Unknown Male”.
I’m back! Did you miss me?
I spent a month in Australia, visiting Sydney, Alice Springs and surrounding desert and tropical North Queensland. I had a whale of a time and didn’t want to come back. Oddly enough, when I went to Queensland I found my hotel was right next to the local ambulance station. I might have stood around taking photos of it like a right old spotter. I swear this wasn’t planned.
When I got back from Australia I decided to take a bit of a blogging holiday. Life is a bit hectic at the moment and morale at Nee Naw Control isn’t exactly high right now. It never is this time of year, especially for those of us who are working Christmas and New Year and not getting any extra pay, whilst our colleagues who are rostered off are eligible for triple pay if they choose to come in. Ouch.
Anyway, I’m back now with some tales of seasonal woe. You will not be surprised to learn that it’s been very busy over the last couple of weeks due to a combination of horrible weather and people overindulging at Christmas parties. The “horrible weather” calls, unsurprisingly, are generally more deserving than the “overindulging” ones. Most are complete timewasters who call us because their mate is too drunk to get in a cab and they are too scared to ring his mother. But there are some exceptions. The other night, we blued a young woman in after a “sambuca overdose”. She was completely unconscious, though I suspect she’ll recover with no more than a serious hangover and patchy memory. But then…
“30YOM” I read on my screen. “UNCONSCIOUS. NOT BREATHING.”
As soon as I’d sent the ambulances, I called the police – standard procedure for any unexplained cardiac arrest in a young person. The police came straight back to warn us they had no officers available. I had to make the decision whether to tell the crew to hold off until there were police available (endangering the patient) or go straight in (possibly endangering the crew).
I lifted the phone to listen in and heard someone, who I presumed was the patient’s mother, talking to the call taker. She was upset but coherent.
“He had so much to drink last night… I think he’s choked on his vomit, he’s covered…” she wept.
Someone in the background was doing CPR. I could hear the crunching of the patient’s ribs.
“He’s making AWFUL noises,” said the mother. “Oh, stop, it’s…”
“No,” said the call taker. “You must carry on, unless he’s started breathing by himself…”
“He’s not breathing,” said the mother. “Just… gurgling… listen…”
I recoiled from the phone as I heard the most awful sound. The rasps of agonal breathing with additional… bubbling.
The call taker had clearly heard enough too.
“Yes, I can hear, but you MUST carry on with the compressions until the ambulance arrives,” he commanded. “Tell your husband to keep going and to count aloud and I’ll tell you when the ambulance arrives.”
Right on cue, the first ambulance pulled up outside the door (we’d let them know it sounded safe to go in), so I hung up and let the call taker know it was time to get someone outside.
They got him back.
A matter of minutes later, he was blued in, post cardiac arrest, breathing regularly, blood pressure and pulse not bad, considering. He was starting to regain consciousness.
Like a lot of people, I bet he’ll be vowing never to drink again when he comes round. Unlike a lot of them, he might actually mean it.
We received a call to a male who was suffering from amnesia…
… when the crew arrived, no one could remember making the 999 call…
Today, Banana Man did not ring to offer us a banana once.
He rang to tell us that he is getting married.
Today I was allocating the central part of the South East desk. I like this desk. The reason I like this desk is because it contains Waterloo Ambulance Station, which is directly behind Control. So when you send an ambulance to a call, you can see it drive past the window on blue lights. For some reason, this makes me happy. I’m easily pleased.
Joe is a paramedic who’s had enough. He works on an FRU in an area notorious for misuse of the service and unsavoury characters. He has spent the last umpteen years dashing through the streets on blue lights to be greeted with pregnant ladies brandishing their neatly packed suitcases or twenty-year-olds with colds who wanted him to bring them the paracetamol. He’s filled out endless LA52s (‘incident report forms’) after being abused by the local scrotes and That Regular Who Dribbled on Reynolds’ Arm. Joe can’t remember the last time he was sent to someone who was actually seriously ill. I think if you offered Joe a nice little job in a cake shop instead, he’d snap it up – and to be honest, he’d have more chance of using his skills there, should someone overdose on cake and arrest on the shop floor.
Joe likes to phone us on the desk for a good-natured whinge about most of his calls. He knows all our names, and we recognise his voice instantly. Usually he calls after he’s finished with the patient – “You’ll never guess what – she’d had the rash for six years and decided to call 999 now, at 11pm on Saturday night!” – but occasionally he can’t contain himself and calls on the radio whilst speeding to the call.
Saturday was one such occasion.
“Why is this swine flu call a Cat A?” he complained.
“Because the patient is having chest pain…” said the radio op.
“He’s probably got a cough! Why do I have to go… I know, I have to…” sighed Joe. “Okay, thank you.”
Thirty minutes later, my phone rang. On the other end was an extremely animated Joe.
“What happened?” I asked, anticipating another tale of outrageous timewasting.
“This 24-year-old, right, been in bed with swine flu for a week. Looks rough and sweaty, but people generally do with flu. He tells me he’s feeling much worse and that his chest hurts, so I wire him up to the heart monitor – that’s protocol for anyone with chest pain. I read the monitor printout, and he’s only having a heart attack! At that point, the ambulance pulls up, so I shout over to them to get a move on so we can blue light him into the cardiac hospital. We get him on the trolley, and he goes into cardiac arrest right in front of my eyes! I couldn’t believe it!”
“What happened next?” I asked.
“Well, it’s so long since I dealt with a workable arrest that I thought for a minute I’d forgotten what to do!” said Joe. “But it all came back. Two shocks with the defib and we got him back. He was only down for about thirty seconds and he’s partially conscious now. Crew have just blued him in, I followed them to hospital in case he went down again, but he didn’t.”
“You didn’t want to go on that call,” I reminded him. “You thought it was another time waster – admittedly, so did we! Just goes to show, you can never be sure. I bet you won’t complain about the ‘rubbish’ calls we sent you on in future.”
“No!” said Joe. “Never again! I’ve learned my lesson!”
Do you think Joe ever complained about a call again? Yes, of course he did. But he was quiet for at least a week…
Since the deaths of Enid Whiner and Horace Halfpenny, the East Central desk has been somewhat short of regulars. We only really have two, a crazy pensioner who consistently tells us she’s had a fall and then shouts at the ambulance crew when they have the temerity to turn up at her flat, and a nasty psychopathic drug user who calls from phone boxes telling us about his nuclear weapons and occasionally dribbles on Tom Reynolds’ uniform. Today, however, saw the return of one very regular regular, one I had never hoped to hear from again.
Back in my call taking days, the ambulance service was absolutely terrorised by one very persistent individual, who would make call after call after call, mostly to the same fictitious address in Bethnal Green, and occasionally (just for a change) to Gatwick Airport. The diagnosis was always a variation on one of three themes: offering or requesting a banana; telling us about his itchy penis; requesting help because someone had collapsed due to dizziness (often on the airport runway). It is not an exaggeration to say this man made thousands of calls or that every single call taker had been driven to distraction by him. However, in August last year, the police finally caught up with him, and to everyone’s relief, the calls stopped. It emerged that he was a disabled teenager, and for this reason the police went easy on him, and I heard Social Services had tried to show him the error of his ways and arranged a visit to Ambulance Control to show him what we do. (Personally, I am not sure this last bit was a good idea. There are a few people in Control who would have had difficulty maintaining a polite demeanour if they had known who he was).
Anyway, today – a busy Friday afternoon – I was sitting in front of a screenful of calls of varying seriousness and wondering how I was going to cover the lot of them with two cars, a green truck and a push bike, when a familiar address in Bethnal Green popped up.
“Good god no!” I exclaimed. “It can’t be… it is… NO!”
“What??” said G from the radio, thinking something important had happened.
“It’s…. HIM! BANANA MAN!” I howled.
“NOOOOOOOO” said G, and everyone else within earshot. They were all traumatised by Banana Incidents from the call taking days, too.
I’ll tell you one thing, though – now I’m an allocator on the East Central Desk, there is NO WAY I am going to allow Banana Man to resume his reign of terror. I am NOT having him jeopardising the safety of my patients and I am not having my ambulance crews running around on wild goose chases after his dizzy itchy runway banana! I have started a log of all of his hoax calls (there were eight this afternoon) and I will be passing it on to Management, the police, the local greengrocer and air traffic control. Banana Man will be stopped! No bananas on my manor!
I thought I’d heard everything there was to hear in this job. But today we had a call that was so bizarre and horrible that it left us speechless.
A woman committed suicide. She didn’t use one of the “normal” methods like cutting her wrists or overdosing. She didn’t even go for the more dramatic jumping under a train or hanging herself. No, she choked herself to death with a large quantity of marshmallows.
It was the sort of call that you look at and think “no… this can’t be… they’ll get there and it’ll all be a misunderstanding. Or a hoax. She couldn’t possibly have…”
But she had. The call was exactly as given. She was already dead by the time the crew arrived.
We often like to share a bag of Flumps on the East Central during nightshifts, but I think we’ll be giving them a miss from now on.
You called 999 and told us that your friend had been attacked by a group of ten or more youths. He’d been stabbed, you told the call taker, come quickly. He’s lying unconscious in a pool of blood. You weren’t sure if he was breathing, you said.
The call taker you spoke to was new. The adrenaline rose in him as he gave you the instructions. He told you how to maintain your friend’s airway, but you dropped the phone and didn’t come back. His trainer reassured him that he’d done everything right, but he still worried. He’d never taken a call like this before.
Meanwhile, the allocator upstairs looked at your call and took the decision to divert the ambulance from Mrs Jones, age 85, two streets away, who was in the midst of a heart attack, and sent it to your friend instead. She’d have to wait a couple of minutes longer for the second nearest ambulance to reach her. Hopefully those minutes wouldn’t mean the difference between life and death.
HEMS, the air ambulance, was dispatched, with a doctor and a paramedic on board. Did you know it costs HEMS an average of one thousand pounds every time it takes off? HEMS is a charity, so that’s money people have collected in jars, doing bungee jumps, shaving their heads, money given to help people. Because HEMS went to help you, it wasn’t available for poor little Johnny Taylor who was hit by a car ten minutes later on the other side of London, and broke his leg in two places.
As the police, the ambulance crew, the ambulance manager and the HEMS team ran to the spot where you said your friend lay dying, they found nothing. Just a phone box with the handset dangling from the receiver and a rustle in the bushes as you ran away laughing.
Did you feel proud?
Everyone knew Horace Halfpenny. He was a foul-mouthed, malodorous drunk who thought nothing of flinging his colostomy bag (and occasionally part of his innards) at the professionals who tried to help him. Horace was the proverbial bad penny. We simply couldn’t get rid of him. He was banned from nearly every hospital in London, but he still called. A crew took him to Harlow, but days later he was back. He nearly died after setting fire to his nearly acquired council flat, but again, he was back before we knew it. Managers, police, social workers all got on the case and tried to stop Horace calling but to no avail. He was here, there, everywhere, popping up all over London with the infernal refrain: “MY BOWELS ARE HANGING OUT!”
But now Horace will never be calling us again. Because Horace Halfpenny is dead.
It seems that what Horace didn’t tell us that as well as the issues with his bowels and his burns, Horace was also suffering from lung cancer. Last weekend, a crew picked him up and poor Horace didn’t even have the energy to wave his colostomy bag around or swear at the crew. He lay forlornly in the back of the ambulance, his face a shade of grey.
“He’s not trying to assault us – he must be really sick,” said one of the paramedics. “Better blue him in.”
They got to the hospital, but Horace died soon after. It was then that they discovered that Horace had cancer.
The news spread round the control room like wildfire.
“I thought he hadn’t called for a while,” I said. “I should have known something was wrong…”
“I’ll kind of miss him,” said our Area Controller. “Kind of.”
The world will be a quieter place without Horace. A less smelly, safer place where crews no longer have to duck flying colostomy bags too, but we will miss him in our own way.
We had a call last week which read as follows:
“78 year old male. Scrotum has swollen to three times size of a football.”
“Three times the size of a football?” I said incredulously, almost forgetting to send the ambulance out in my horror. “A football is this big… so three footballs… that’s impossible! It would almost reach the floor!”
“Maybe it’s a misprint?” suggested colleague G. “Perhaps he meant ‘scrotum has swollen to three times normal size, is now size of football’”
“More feasible,” I said. “But still rating quite highly in the Enormous Scrotum stakes.”
“What are you lot squealing about?” said Male Management, peering over my shoulder. “OH MY GOD OUCH! Have you told HEMS? Oh my god! Ouch!”
I meant to ask the crew exactly how large the offending scrotum was and the cause of the ailment once they were free, but I got distracted by lots of people getting sick and injured and never got round to it. So it shall remain a mystery.
Life has been a little bit hectic recently so sorry for the lack of blogging! I do have some ambulance tales coming quite soon but in the meantime, here’s a quick plug for a great book.
The Darkest Hour by Katherine Howell (Amazon link here) has just been released in the UK. Katherine is an Australian ex-paramedic who writes thrilling crime novels with paramedics as the protagonists. Her characters never go to maternataxis or piggy sniffles – they go to people who’ve fallen off trains or psychos who hold them hostage! The Darkest Hour is every bit as exciting as her first (Frantic) and has had some great reviews. One paper said that she is set to do for paramedics what Patricia Cornwell did for forensic pathologists! Anyway, I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves ambulance action, crime thrillers or just plain old good fiction!
As some of you may know, when I originally started work for the LAS five years ago, I really wanted to be a paramedic, and working in the control room was an interim measure until I passed my driving test.
I soon hit a stumbling block when I discovered I was actually completely terrible at driving. I also found that I enjoyed working in the control room a lot more than I expected, particularly when I was promoted to allocator earlier this year. I would also find the pay drop from allocator to student paramedic totally crippling, as I live on my own in London and have a lot of student debts. In short, the paramedic dreams and driving lessons kind of fell by the wayside.
However, 2009 has been a year of everything miraculously going right for me, and therefore I decided to give my driving test a fifth and final try. If there was any time for me to pass, it would be now. After all, compared with some of the things I’ve achieved this year, it should be a breeze, right? On the other hand, if I failed again, I could say with certainty: “Okay, it’s time to give up. I tried my hardest and I couldn’t do it and now it is time to stop wasting my time and money.”
Of course, life always presents you with the one outcome you didn’t bargain for. I failed – but I failed by a whisker. I failed on the sodding reverse around the blooming corner, even though I know this is a manoeuvre I can perform in my sleep. I failed because I was so bloody nervous that my leg was shaking like an epileptic and I couldn’t control the clutch and the car hopped all the way round the corner and up towards the kerb, and then I panicked and lost control of the steering and stalled the car and it was a TOTAL MESS. Then we drove on and I pootled happily around the North Circular and round Charlie Brown’s roundabout taking the third exit with white van men and kamikaze drivers in beaten up Escorts cutting into me and failing to utilise any signals. I did a perfect turn in the road and sailed up and down Woodford New Road without breaking the speed limit. I pulled off a hill start in heavy traffic. Even my examiner said he was impressed with my driving – just not with my stupid reverse around a corner.
If I had been a miserable failure, it would have been easy to say “that’s that” and quit with honour. It would have been an easy decision to give up wasting £20 a week (the price of a ticket to Brighton, a bottle of champagne or two posh eyeshadows!) on driving lessons. I would never have had to face a £10k pay cut in order to become a student paramedic. I could give up the dream of driving an ambulance, knowing I was chasing something that was never going to happen, and concentrate on what I do have instead.
But I was so close…
And “Nee Naw 2: From Room to Road” is a book that is just itching to be written.
So I think I will give it one more go. In a few months’ time, though. I think I’ve got enough to be getting on with at the moment.
The comments on my post about swine flu have been really eyeopening. There were one or two that made me angry and think “this commenter is PRECISELY the sort of person who ignores the advice in the media and thinks they are entitled to abuse the 999 service” but mainly I saw people who were terrified of getting swine flu and worried that their GP service won’t be able to do enough if they do. For a couple of commenters, these fears had become a reality as they or a relative had caught swine flu, and not all were satisfied with the service they’d received from GPs etc. For those people, 999 had become an option because they felt they had nowhere else to turn. This is still a misuse of the service, but it’s one borne out of fear and caring, not selfishness and entitlement. I understand this – I’m terrified of getting it too, not because of being ill but because I’m worried how we will cope at work if half the Control staff are off sick. We’re already in isolation (no visitors in the room, even ambulance crews) and being asked to spray ourselves and the equipment with various noxious antiseptics. I do think people are panicking unnecessarily because the number of deaths is tiny, and normal flu can kill too, but the media circus is mainly to blame for that.
Just to clarify, when I said we should be turning people with swine flu away, I did NOT mean people who are seriously ill. High risk groups and anyone with life threatening symptoms would never get turned away if I were making the rules. The people who WOULD get turned away are people who haven’t bothered ringing their GP, haven’t bothered taking medication for their symptoms, who feel they should never be ill and that we should be able to provide a quick fix. People with mild symptoms who just want to get a diagnosis of swine flu. Healthy 20-somethings who can open the door to the ambulance crew. I think that those of you who go by the book and only call us out as a last resort really have NO IDEA of the number of people who misuse the service or the frustration of crews and control staff.
One paramedic rang me yesterday at the end of his tether.
“This is the fourth case of mild, non life threatening swine flu I’ve been to today!” he lamented as he gave me the details to arrange a GP, just as the patient should have done for himself. “I am so going to catch it. But it’s not me I am worried about – I have a baby, a toddler and a pregnant wife. They’re all in high risk groups.”
“I know,” I said. “It frustrates me as well, but what can we do? We have to send.”
“I’ll put that on my baby’s gravestone, shall I?” huffed the paramedic. “Sorry, I know it’s not your fault. But please try and send me to something else next!”
Fortunately, the new swine flu centres and hotline should be operational very soon, so we won’t have to send ambulances to swine flu patients unless they really need them.
“Call a hambulance! I’ve eaten too many Percy Pigs and now I think I’ve got swine flu!”
I’ve just come back from three weeks’ leave and found the service absolutely inundated with calls from people who think they have swine flu. No one seems to have taken any notice whatsoever of the NHS’s advice, which is to ring your GP if you are worried that you may have a touch of hamthrax. (The only expection is if someone develops life threatening symptoms as a result of the flu, which is extremely rare and usually only seen in people who had poor health to start with). No, the general public have cleverly decided that they want to take their piggy germs to a hospital where they can spread it to thousands of sick and pregnant people and on their way infect a poor ambulance crew who will then go off sick for a week, leaving our resources even more stretched.
As usual, we are not allowed to refuse anyone an ambulance, so the crews have no option but to mask up and go in. Once they arrive and confirm that the situation is a non life threatening case of suspected swine flu, the crews just have to arrange a GP for the patients like they should have done themselves in the first place. Our protocol is that all GP requests are made via Control, because our phone lines are recorded and crews’ mobiles aren’t, so we have been run off our feet calling GPs this weekend. While we are used to making the odd call to GPs whilst getting on with our job, it is extremely dangerous to have allocators and radio ops tied up on these calls when they are supposed to be allocating and operating radios.
Personally, I’d like to see a blanket no send policy on all calls to patients with flu symptoms only unless the call has been authorised by a doctor. Call takers should just be able to say “Are you worried you have swine flu? Well, you shouldn’t be calling us. Call a GP instead.” and the patient would go away and sort out their own GP without tying us up. I can’t see that happening, though.
It is all very stressful. I never want to see another pig again. I am even off my Percy Pigs though I am sure that will pass. I just hope no one in the control room catches it, because I’m sure if they do we will all go down with it and then there will be a huge staffing crisis and I will have to do lots of overtime.
Last week, work arranged for a bunch of us from Control to go to Heathrow Airport to meet the Heathrow Nee Naws and have a behind-the-scenes tour. As a big fan of the TV programme Airline and a total spotter, I jumped at the chance. It was a really, really interesting day.
We started off with a drive around the perimeter road, watching planes take off and land every few seconds. We pulled up at one of the RVPs – the places emergencies services meet up at if there’s a serious incident. There was a clear view of the runway from the RVP.
“A couple of years ago, we were sent here for an ‘aircrash immiment’,” one of the paramedics told us. “Half of the undercarriage of the plane had come down and a crash landing was inevitable. We watched the plane circle round the airport again and again as the airport made preparations to minimise the impact. After what seemed like hours, the plane was told to land. The pilot somehow managed to land the plane on two wheels, and it was only as it drew to a halt that the fuselage scraped along the ground. There was an enormous noise and sparks everywhere. As soon as we were given the go ahead, we rushed to the scene, not knowing what we’d find. We’d been anticipating deaths, but the worst injury was a broken ankle. We took our patient to hospital, and as soon as I’d booked him in, I walked outside A+E and burst into tears.”
Next we went inside the airport and had a drive round the airfield, getting a good look at all the planes and posh lounges for rich people (Jordan?) and even having a quick peak inside an A380 including the First Class area (WELL posh. I think I might upgrade my tickets for my forthcoming trip to Oz). We went to the spot where there had recently been a freak accident where an airport worker had driven into a big yellow pole and become impaled on it.
Then we went up the Air Traffic Control tower. There was an incredible view and we were all allowed to take photos. Air Traffic Controllers, I suppose, are a bit like Allocators in that they have to know where all their planes are and instruct them on where to go. They work shifts like us and have lots of complicated screens with pictures of cartoon aeroplanes on, just like we have screens of cartoon ambulances. But of course, if we were to send an ambulance to the wrong place, all that would happen is a slight delay in reaching the patient. If an air traffic controller were to make the same mistake, they’d end up blowing up 300 people! What a responsibility!
I noticed they have a large red button connected to a telephone marked “CRASH” but I resisted the temptation to press it and exclaim “So what does this do??”
Our next stop was the posh new terminal 5 where we got to see a shiny blue clock and sniffer dogs. Not being allowed in the duty free shops was quite torturous, though. We also got to see A505, which is the dedicated airport ambulance and one of the bicycle ambulances (also known as CRU, cycle response unit). I was amazed at the amount of kit they can actually fit on the back of one of these things – the only things they don’t have that a normal ambulance does is the paediatric advanced life support kit, the maternity kit and the cardiac monitor. They are really heavy and as the responder has to cycle really slowly through the airport to avoid hitting people, they have to be really good cyclists.
Our final stop was the Star Centre, which is the central control room for Heathrow. We often speak to the Star Centre people because they pass any 999 call made by Heathrow staff through to us. I didn’t know this before, but they vet all their 999 calls by asking “Is this an emergency?” and apparently they get rid of quite a few. I wish our call takers were allowed to say that too! I was amused to see they have a big board full of colour coded statistics relating to queues hanging over their heads which looked identical to the one we have about ambulance response times. It seems damned statistics are everywhere, whatever job you do.
The Star Centre people let us listen to the tape recording of the call made to them by air traffic control after the plane crash in January 2008. I was amazed at the calm voice of the controller, clearly giving details of the accident. Of course, I suppose it’s no different from the calm way ambulance crews pass us a blue call for a horrible injury, or the calm way call takers give resuscitation instructions – they are following protocol the way they are trained to. I think it’s just the gut reaction the words “Plane Crash” provoke in me. I still have a bit of paranoia that one day I will be allocating on the West Desk when a plane crashes – but at least after today I am much more familiar with the way the airport works and will be able to cope a lot better.
I’m on nights this week and it has been CRAZILY busy. Usually, the East Central is dead by 2am on a week night. This week, I’ve still been juggling a screen full of calls at 5am.
So what do you think is responsible for the increase in call rate? Drunken people enjoying the good weather? Swine flu? No, it’s the pollen count. Our screens are full of young people having “severe difficulty in breathing”, brought on by hayfever. It’s the first time I can remember this happening, and from a Control point of view, it’s hard to tell how serious these calls are. Some people are undoubtedly calling just for bog standard hayfever symptoms, and as a sufferer myself I know how horrible that “pins in eyes, feathers in throat, corks up nose” feeling is, but I wouldn’t call an ambulance from it. On the other hand, in some cases, the hayfever triggers a full blown asthma attack and the patient really does need us.
In other news, our control room is being refurbished at the moment. They are ripping out all the desks and making them point in different directions. This means we keep getting moved around to different rooms, no one knows where any of the other desks are and management have not been seen for several days. The highlight of last night’s shift was finding a big box of Christmas Belgian biscuits in a hidden cupboard when they dismantled the East Central desk. We ate the lot.
A few weeks ago, a two-year-old boy was killed when he was hit by a rollercoaster after accidentally wandering on to the tracks. You may have heard about it in the media. This didn’t happen in my sector, but on the desk opposite, so while I was getting on with my work, I kept picking up snippets of information across the room.
“It sounded awful,” said one of the call takers. “Everyone was screaming. I couldn’t get any sense out of anyone.”
“DSO’s on the phone,” announced the radio op. “He says HEMS are working on him but it’s not looking good. Crews are going to have to go off the road afterwards. The FRU paramedic is really upset. Sounds like a really awful call.”
Seconds later, I had my own call to worry about. A tipsy teenage boy had fallen down a river embankment. His friends couldn’t reach him, but they could see that he was unconscious and had blood trickling from his ear. They couldn’t tell if he was breathing.
As we sent the crew, we asked them to report for HEMS, even though we knew HEMS were the other side of London, dealing with a critically ill toddler. We hoped they’d say HEMS weren’t needed, because there is only one HEMS team and they can’t be in two places at once.
“Perhaps it’s not as bad as it sounds,” said the radio operator dubiously. “He could just be drunk and it could be a scratch on his face. It could turn out to be nothing. Do we know how far he fell?”
I fired up the new “street view” thing on Google maps to get a better look at the river bank in question. Of course, Google probably didn’t intend their map system to be used for this purpose, and there wasn’t a good close up of the riverbank, but I could clearly make out that the river was well below street level and that there was a set of stairs leading down to it. It looked to me that it could be at least a fifteen-foot drop.
The crew arrived and found the stairs we’d seen on the map. As they arrived, the boy was coming round but was extremely confused and cerebrally irritated, lashing out at anyone who tried to come near him. This kind of behaviour (which is sometimes hard to distinguish from alcohol induced aggression) is indicative of a life threatening brain injury. The crew called up for assistance. They needed someone, anyone, down there to help them restrain the boy in order to treat him, and they really needed the help of the HEMS doctor. We sent the police and another ambulance crew…
The phone rang. It was the DSO.
“We heard the crew on the radio. HEMS have done all they can here; the toddler’s on his way to hospital, so they’re coming to you now. Where exactly is the call?”
I told him, and the HEMS team got in the car (the helicopter does not fly at night) and belted it across London. They were at the riverbank in fifteen minutes. They were able to sedate the boy and get him on board the ambulance.
As they got him to hospital, he went into respiratory arrest. The A+E staff all battled to save him, but it was no good. It’s likely he had fractured his skull and had a serious bleed into his brain, and if this was the case, nothing anyone did would have saved him.
Now both the toddler and the teenager were dead.
The next morning the papers were full of stories about the tragedy of the toddler and the fairground ride. Not one mentioned the teenager or the river bank.
I like old people, so I have a tendency to think they are all sweet and nice and try to send ambulances to them as quickly as possible.
The other day, we had a call to a seventy-two year old female with a nosebleed. I decided to send the ECP (Emergency Care Practitioner) – a paramedic in a car who has extra training, and can deal with a lot of calls at home. The ECP will always perform a full set of checks on the patient before deciding whether to call for an ambulance or leave the patient at home and perhaps refer them to a GP, district nurse, etc.
The ECP had been at the old lady’s house no longer than a couple of minutes when he rang me.
“I’ve had to leave!” he puffed. “I thought she was going to attack me?”
“The seventy two year old with a nosebleed?!” I said, confused.
“Yes!” said the ECP. “I turned up and she was there with her bag packed – and no hint of a nosebleed except a slightly bloodied tissue. I explained that I needed to examine her properly before we were going anywhere and that she might not even need to go to hospital, and she went crazy! She told me to Foxtrot Oscar, and when I tried to explain, she came at me! So I ran away and locked myself in the car!”
I don’t know what our ECP looks like, but he sounds like a strapping young man and the thought of him running scared from a septuagenarian almost made me titter as I made sure he was okay and assured him he wouldn’t have to return to the address and we would make alternative arrangements.
I wasn’t laughing five minutes later, though. Incensed by the fact that the ECP hadn’t done as she asked, the elderly lady in question had rung back twice and sworn at two call takers and one of the Telephone Advice paramedics. Not content with this, she had also rung NHS Direct, her GP, her careline, the complaints department and her local MP to complain. All of the above, with the exception of the MP, had rung in to find out what was going on. (I do not know why people always threaten to tell their MP when they do not like something the ambulance service has done. I have seen no evidence that any MP is remotely interested.)
I had no option but to send an ambulance crew to her to take her to hospital. I warned the crew what had happened to the ECP and asked if they wanted the police or a DSO (manager) to help them.
“Nah, I think we can just about outrun a 72 year old if she gets nasty!” said one of them.
The crew also had no success in examining the patient and decided to cut their losses and ferry her to the hospital, just as she’d asked.
At the hospital, the receptionist told our charming patient that there would be a three hour wait to be seen. She promptly muttered something about complaining to Gordon Brown and stormed out.
The hospital she was taken to was right next to her local shops. If I were the cynical type I might suggest this was behind her rather odd behaviour.