It’s become a bit of a running joke that whenever I work on a particular desk on the other side of the room (usually when I am in on overtime), everything kicks off and there is calamity and disaster. Well, the other week, I worked on that particular desk as an allocator, and it was the day from hell. There were three open leg fractures, an old lady crushed by a milk float, a stabbing, a bottling, a fight between forty people and an extremely suspicious death… but one call overshadowed the rest.
The Desk of Disaster, unlike my usual home, the North East, contains large patches of countryside, the no man’s land between London’s suburbs and the territory of the neighbouring ambulance service. Even on blue lights, running from the nearest ambulance station, it takes at least fifteen minutes to reach these areas. (Okay, I am anticipating a derisive snort for those of you who work for Scottish Highlands Ambulance Service and the like, but for us, that’s a long way. Most Londoners live within five minutes of an ambulance station. It’s rare for me to run one more than three miles on the North East). Of course, not a lot tends to happen in these areas, so they don’t generally cause much concern, and now we have every crew’s favourite Active Area Cover (explanation from Tom Reynolds) we have an ambulance hovering around the one village in this area anyway. Which meant when had a call to an 80 year old man who had fallen and banged his head, we were on scene within 5 minutes. Super!
Unfortunately, fifteen minutes later, another call came in Ruralsville, and now the nearest available ambulance was 8 miles away. It was at one of those big posh country houses up a track, miles from the main road. Response time hell. I gritted my teeth and silently prayed it was going to be something trivial, because we had nothing for it.
“TODDLER FELL IN SWIMMING POOL” typed the call taker. “NOT BREATHING.”
Now, I don’t panic. This job requires one to have a clear head and unflappable nature at all times. But if I was going to panic, that would have been a good moment for it. You may just have seen a bead of sweat on my forehead if you looked closely. There I was, doing a job two grades above what I am paid to do, on an unfamiliar desk, working with people I’d never worked with before, and I had a suspended toddler in Outer Mongolia that I couldn’t cover! This was not good.
The first thing I did was to dispatch that ambulance 8 miles away in suburbia. I can imagine their faces as they saw the address and diagnosis, but they didn’t question it and started running on the call straight away. The second thing was to stop the radio op, who was in the middle of dealing with something else, in her tracks and demand that she broadcast the call straight away. (First rule of dispatch manners: don’t interrupt the radio op, it is v rude and irritating. Second rule of dispatch manners: when you have a suspended child, drop everything, including manners). A crew at the nearest hospital heard the broadcast and offered up straight away. They were still five miles away, but a three mile improvement. I sent them and cancelled the first crew. We were getting there. Checking the log, I saw an FRU had been dispatched from 3 miles away and HEMS had also been sent (these are handled separately by other desks in the same room).
Then, our prayers were answered. The crew who’d been on Active Area Cover in Ruralsville, and were just leaving for hospital with the elderly gentleman on board, called up to tell us they would attend the call to render aid to the child until the others arrived. (They later explained that they’d had a third person, a student paramedic, on board, who sat with the elderly man whilst they dealt with the child). They were less than two miles away.
Meanwhile, whilst my colleagues on the Disaster Desk and I performed the less urgent tasks like notifying the police, the DSO (ambulance crews’ manager) and our managers, two call takers were on the phone to people at the scene. Both these call takers did fantastically and afterwards the crews rang up to ask us to pass on their thanks. One call taker was speaking to an adult male at the scene and got us the full address and directions very quickly. The other was speaking to the biggest hero of the story – a teenage girl who was at the poolside. It was this girl who’d spotted the toddler in the pool and dived in to drag her out, and now, with the call taker’s instructions, she was performing perfect CPR, which she continued right up until the moment the first professionals arrived.
It’s a bit strange in the control room when you get a complicated call like this, because there is so much to do until the crew arrives on scene, but once they get there, it all goes quiet and there’s nothing you can do but wait. Oh yes, and deal with the constant stream of heart attacks, road traffic accidents and teenagers with flu that have come in in the meantime.
About an hour or two later, we had a call from the DSO, who let us know the latest. It was very tentative good news – the toddler had been taken to the Royal London by HEMS and was alive, but in a very serious condition. All the crews involved were going off the road for a stiff cup of tea (except the crew with the old man on board, who had to stop off at the hospital to drop him off!) HEMS told us that the toddler was on a ventilator and was undergoing tests on her brain. They’d let me know the outcome next time I was in.
I thought this was a pretty good example of teamwork and how well people can pull together when we’ve a genuine emergency on our hands. If one piece of the jigsaw – the professionalism of the call takers, the quick thinking of the crew with the old man on board, the prompt action of the crew at the hospital, the heroism of the teenage girl on the scene, the way we on the Disaster Desk pulled together – had been missing, the child would have been dead before anyone arrived on scene. It just goes to show that whilst we might all bicker about each other (lazy crews that spend too long at hospital, unsympathetic control staff who bully crews who have done nothing wrong, call takers who can’t spell, unhelpful members of the public, etc…) when it really counts, none of that matters.
I’d like to say there was a happy ending to the story, but this isn’t Casualty, and there wasn’t. Two days later, when I came in for my next shift, HEMS told me that the tests on the toddler’s brain had come back with bad news, and she’d subsequently died. The consolation was that her organs had been suitable for donation – which they wouldn’t have been if she’d died before she got to hospital – and so even though everyone’s efforts didn’t save her life, they indirectly saved others. So all in all, a good day’s work.