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.