The call on our screen was from Greater Manchester Ambulance Service, and there was a lot of detail crammed into a short space.

“30yof ? ‘mental breakdown’. Has just had daughter taken away from her. ? suicidal. Sister in Manchester concerned for her safety. Sent text saying ‘goodbye’. Patient’s name Anna, sister’s name Jenny.”

A lot of the time, we get calls like this, turn up, find the patient drowning their sorrows but otherwise okay and make a reassuring call to the concerned relative. Other times, we find the house locked, with no answer at the door, call the police round with their enforcers to break it down… just at the point the ‘patient’ returns from shopping. Such ‘patients’ are rarely impressed.

On this occasion, however, the ambulance crew found the door wide open, and the flat empty. The ambulance crew called me on the radio to ask what they should do next. I called Jenny, the sister, to explain what we’d found.

“She’s gone somewhere to kill herself!” sobbed Jenny.

“Do you have any idea where?” I asked.

“No,” said Jenny. “I don’t know London at all! She’s only been living there two months. She moved there to get away from her partner when they split up and took her seven year old daughter with her. But they said her daughter’s got to stay with her partner. They came and took her today. She’s not coping at all, she’s gone crazy. I seriously think she’s going to do something stupid…”

“Do you have her phone number?” I asked.

“Yes,” sniffed Jenny, “but it’s no good, she won’t answer.”

I took the number anyway. Sometimes people WILL answer when it’s a number they don’t recognise, even when they’re ignoring their family and friends. Even in the depths of suicidalness, curiosity wins over. Sure enough, the phone was picked up on the second ring.

“Hellooo?” said a wild, tearful and somewhat drunk sounding voice.

“Is that Anna?” I said. “This is the ambulance service. We’ve had a call from your sister, Jenny. She’s very concerned about you, and she’d like an ambulance to check you over. Can you tell me where you are so we can do that?”

“I don’t WANT an ambulance,” wailed Anna. “I just want to go to sleep! I am nothing but trouble to everyone. I’ll be wasting their time. There are people there who deserve help! Don’t waste your time on me when people are really sick! Tell them to go away!”

We can’t force anyone to have an ambulance if they don’t want to, but there’s no rule against gently trying to persuade them to change their mind, and I certainly thought Anna could do with talking to someone.

“Anna,” I said, “you’re not wasting anyone’s time. We’re here to help people like you. Your sister has called us, we can’t let her down. I’m not allowed to let the ambulance leave until they’ve seen you and made sure you are okay”. (This isn’t strictly true but I was pretty sure she wouldn’t know that.)

“I’m not okay, I’ll never be okay,” said Anna. “I just want to go to sleep. I’m very tired.” Her voice was slurred and distant.

“Have you taken something?” I asked, a feeling of dread rising.

“Tramadol, zopiclone… I took them all… I just want to go to sleep…” she muttered.

Oh, great. I’ve spent enough time on the phone to Guy’s Poisons investigating overdoses for crews to know that this was a potentially fatal overdose. We needed to find Anna.

“Where are you?” I asked. “We need to find you. Please tell me where you are.”

“It’s a nice place to go to sleep,” rambled Anna, seemingly missing the point of my question. “There’s grass, and a weeping willow. I like weeping willows.”

All the while this was going on, I still had the radio in my ear, with an increasing queue of impatient ambulances calling up wanting to speak to me. We usually have a dispatcher to do long winded tasks such as ringing back suicidal people who don’t want to be found, but there’s not enough of that type of work late at night to justify having one, so the radio operator has to do everything. J402 were shouting in my ear every five seconds, “J402, red base, J402! We need to go for fuel! Red base! J402!” and I don’t mind saying that this was rather distracting.

“Where’s this weeping willow?” I asked. “Is it in a park? Are you near your house? The ambulance crew are at your house. Can you go back there?”

“I won’t go back there if they are there,” said Anna, “goddamnit it… I left my travelcard there, now I can’t go back for it… still, it’s okay here, under the weeping willow in the park…”

You see what she was doing? With one breath, she was telling me she didn’t want to be found, with the next, she was giving me clues. She was in a park with a weeping willow, and she’d not had her travelcard with her, so she must be walking distance from home.

Ding-a-ling-a-ling! Suddenly an ambulance pressed its priority button, meaning it had something important to say to me on the radio that could not wait. Hurriedly, I summoned a colleague to answer the radio, then turned my attention back to the phone.

“Anna,” I said, “please let us help you. You’ve taken an overdose which is most likely going to kill you if you don’t get to hospital quickly. You’re not going to go to sleep, you’re going to die and if you die you’ll leave your sister devastated and you’ll never see your child again. Is that what you really want?”

“No! I just want to sleep! I just want the pain to end.”

“We can help you. Just tell us where you are.”

“I told you! Under the weeping willow!”

And with that, the line went dead. I tried to call back, but she wouldn’t answer. Seemingly, she was challenging us. She was giving us enough information to work out where she was, but not making it easy for us. We’d have to show that we really wanted to find her by putting some detective work in. I turned my attention back to the radio.

“NE22. I’ve just spent ten minutes on the line to your patient. She’s taken an overdose of tramadol and zopiclone and she’s in a park, walking distance from her address, sitting under a weeping willow. I don’t suppose you have any idea where that might be?”

“Oh, the weeping willow!” said NE22 sardonically. “Right! I reckon there must be about five hundred weeping willows in Walthamstow. We’ll start looking, but this could take some time. Perhaps you’d better notify the police, over.”

Funnily enough, at that exact moment a new ticket came in from the police:

“Uphill Park, E17. Under weeping willow tree. 30yof ? psychiatric, crying hysterically, talking to self.”

I directed NE22 to the park and crossed my fingers. Just because we knew where she was, it didn’t mean we’d find her. After all, it’s easy to hide in a park in the middle of the night if you don’t want to be found.

Five minutes after NE22 arrived at the park, they had Anna on board and were on the way to hospital. I guess she didn’t try too hard to hide. I guess she did want to be found after all.

Published Jul 04, 2008 - 19 Comments and counting

19 Comments on “Weeping Willows”
  1. Kieran Says:

    As I was reading this, I found this post rather emotional.
    Such an amazing story to hear, and it’s such a great post to share.

    The emergency services truly do an amazing job, and to know that without the work you had done, she may not have been found in time!

    Well Done Mark!

  2. William Says:

    I give huge credit to you for not rushing off to the noise in your ear piece – It must be a tough call sometimes, but this one turned out wonferfully. Just out of curiosity, what is the policy about leaving if you don’t find somebody? Is there some sort of time cut off?

  3. Mark Myers Says:

    It’s more a matter of establishing you’ve done everything you can to find the person. If the person doesn’t want to be found, you can theoretically leave straight away because ambulances are supposed to only treat people who want to be treated. If someone goes awol, we might pass the details on to the police because looking for people is a police job, not an ambulance one.

  4. Paul Mackinnon Says:

    Ever since I moved to Walthamstow it seems to be that newspaper-worthy suicides/murders are always people from around here!
    And after 10 months of living here I can honestly say I’ve never noticed a weeping willow before, of course, might help if I even knew what one was!

  5. J Says:

    i suffer with depression and have been in Anna’s situation a fair few times (fortunately not for a few years now). i can understand her not wanting to truely die, but just sleep and although she cut you off like you say she had given you enough clues.

    It’s people like you who try and keep trying, no matter how frustrating the person can be by not giving you the exact location (because they probably don’t want to admit they don’t rally want to die and now have to face the consequences) that make all the difference, and can make someone realise that death really isn’t what they want.

    Keep up the fab work.

  6. swast nick Says:

    did u try eastings and northings from bt/ c&w to locate the mobile? Ive found that useful before

  7. Mark Myers Says:

    That only works if they call us, and usually the signal is too vague, given that we already knew she was within about 15 minutes’ walk from where the ambulance was parked…

  8. Station Supervisor Says:

    This is a very emotional post and really has you waiting to find out if the patient was found.

    A few years back when i was working on a station and ex colleague of mine rang me and told me he had taken a whole bottle of paracetemol and finished of a whole bottle of Whiskey.

    As I was at work there was nothing i could do but call the BTP and hopefully let them fined him.

    As you say in your post, he left me a few clues as to where to find him (which was home) but I didn’t kno whwere he lived.

    It was one of the worst shifts I’d ever spent at work, and I was only informed he was found just toward s the end of it, still alive but on the way to hospital.

  9. Kat Says:

    I have definatly been in Anna’s situation before when I was about 13 or 14.

    I remember self harming (cutting myself) and realising that i had gone too deep but was too scared to call for help because I thought i’d get told off by the ambulance service/A&E for wasteing their time and ended up sticking wounds together with duck tape because it was the only thing that would stay stuck when covered in blood.

    I also remember taking small overdoses and toying with the idea of calling for help. I remember sitting in the woods with a load of paracetamol, ibuprofen, coedine and debatinging calling 999 and taking all the painkillers when the medics where en route.

    I know it sounds really wrong and attention seeking. But at the end of the day I didn’t know what to do. And didn’t know anyone that I could turn to for help. I was being bullied and my best mate had just died and my teachers said bullying didn’t happen at my school. So I thought I was just being pathetic and didn’t think I was strong enough to survive in the world and thought it would be better off without me. But I also thought I wasn’t worthy of help so I don’t think I would have called an ambulance even if i’d properly OD’d.

    As it is I broke on through. Im 22 now and haven’t done any of that self harming stuff for over 4 years. I guess life works out if you give it a chance.

  10. Jane Says:

    That one must make up for all the stupid ones because you made a difference, God willing someone else will pick up the rest of the pieces but you made sure there were pieces to pick up. Thank you

  11. Matt Says:

    I was not able to apprehend from the post your personal feelings about Anna, and that probably indicates your professionalism.

    Thanks for doing your good work.

  12. Matt Says:

    I was not able to apprehend from the post your personal feelings about Anna, and that probably indicates your professionalism.

    Thanks for doing your good work.

  13. Andrew Stokes Says:

    Hi Mark

    that just brought a tear to my eye reading this as I know just what it is like trying to help people on the phone who do not want to be found when I was at college

  14. Andrew Stokes Says:

    Hi Mark

    that just brought a tear to my eye reading this as I know just what it is like trying to help people on the phone who do not want to be found when I was at college and a friend tried to take there life and had gone of in the middle of no were to do it and they did not know were they were never as have only just come to the area they had got lost in there upset sate

  15. Kim Says:

    A woman is alive today because you cared enough to make her a priority despite an avalanche of distractions.

    My friend is an EMS dispatcher and I have the utmost respect for what you do.

    Wonderful post. I hope Anna got the care she so desperately needed.

  16. The Driving Instructor Says:

    Good Job Mark, I too was hoping that the lady is found, very emotional. Keep up the good work.

    The Driving Instructor
    UK Driving School

  17. emt-vessel Says:

    Well done, Mark.
    i know it’s easy to say “but it’s my job” but you did it so very well and no one can remove that from you.
    Three cheers for Control. I know there’s an every ongoing love-hate relationship between control and on-roaders but we wouldn’t be without you guys and gals :0)

    Thanks for being our blind eyes and ears – if you now what i mean :0)

  18. Weeping Willows Says:

    [...] Source: Weeping Willows [...]

  19. Tor Arne Says:

    What’s sad about “Anna”‘s candid way of telling you where she was, making it a riddle for you to solve, is that it indicates that her psyche was operating under what psychiatry calls an external locus of control. She had taken the pills with intent to end her life. but she was still not decisive enough about it to not answer your call or reject your outreached hand when you contacted her. Instead, she created this riddle or test or what you want to call it, so as to be able to say “well, _I_ never asked for anyone’s help, but if _they_ can figure out where I am I guess I might as well live”… It’s sad when people give up on their life like this and leave their fate up to random events in their surroundings (“if the phone doesn’t ring by nine o’clock I’ll take all these pills”), but at least these poor people can be helped by the right form of friendly coercion. I’m glad you were there when it mattered. I’m glad you ignored J402 and stuck with it. Many wouldn’t have. I hope Anna could figure out her stuff. At least you gave her a fighting chance.

    Nee Naw
    Nee Naw was a blog about life in the London Ambulance Service control room. It was written by Suzi Brent from 2005 to 2010. The blog is no longer being updated, but the archives will remain here.
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