Tragedies are common in this job. Ambulances aren’t supposed to go to happy events. But usually, in every call, there’s a glimmer of hope, a small positive that we can take home from the situation. Occasionally, this is not so. Occasionally a job is just horror from beginning to end and makes you shudder and feel cold inside.

To begin with, there was no indication that the call was anything out of the ordinary. A few days before Christmas, a thirty-nine year old female, in labour. Waters broken. Baby due on Christmas day. How sweet. Sixteen year old daughter making the call. Panicking a bit. As we sent the ambulance, we rolled our eyes and made the usual comments about maternataxis and how after sixteen years as a mother one should know how to get to hospital by taxi and…

The ticket updated to indicate that the pregnant woman was having a fit. Okay, we ate our words and realised this was a medical emergency. We made sure the crew knew that – although of course that wouldn’t make them drive there any faster, would it? An emergency call is an emergency call!

Just as the ambulance was pulling up, the ticket updated again. It now read as follows:


We weren’t sure what was going on and there was a suspicion amongst us that the teenage daughter was either giving the wrong answers to questions as a result of panicking or a language barrier, or, as sometimes happens, she was deliberately making the situation sound worse than it was to get an ambulance quicker. After all, it’s quite a leap from being in labour to being dead, and the two states are not easily confused. While we naturally have these thoughts, we never act on them. Never doubt the integrity of the caller, as they taught us in training school. A second ambulance was sent to assist straight away.

Half an hour later, the blue call came. “It’s H702, blue to hospital, with a 39 year old female, full term pregnancy, in cardiac arrest. We’ll be five minutes.”

So it WAS as given. The desk went very quiet, wondering what on earth had happened.

An hour or so later, we spoke to the crew, who were having a cure-all cup of tea back at station.

“They delivered the baby by emergency caesarian,” one of them told us, “but he was already dead. They managed to get an output from the mother, but as they were taking her up to Intensive Care, she arrested again, and this time they couldn’t get her back.”

“How awful,” I said. “What happened?”

I thought he’d say that she’d suffered from eclampsia or a pulmonary embolism, something big and deadly that no one could have prevented.

“She choked,” said H702. “On a chicken bone. She was in early labour and she was having something to eat with her kids before she went to hospital. As she ate, she collapsed. Her daughter who made the call didn’t realise what was wrong. We only found out as we tried to intubate her. There it was, blocking her airway. We got it out, but by that time, she’d already been down too long.”

So that was it. Something as simple as a chicken bone had ended two lives, robbed a family of their mother and the baby brother due to be born on Christmas Day. Instead of welcoming the new arrival, they’d be planning a double funeral. It’s calls like this that make you appreciate the fragility of life and the knife edge that we all live upon.

Published Jan 12, 2009 - 17 Comments and counting

17 Comments on “Tragedy”
  1. Eri Says:

    Fuck. That’s devastating.

  2. Ailbhe Says:


    It’s not often they wish it was a maternataxi, I bet.

  3. Stuart Says:

    That’s dreadful :(

    I know this is a peculiar question, but lets say paramedics arrive on scene and CPR is being carried out – would the ambulance crew would continue CPR on route to the hospital and let a surgical team there attempt to save the baby?

  4. Medicblog Says:

    Wow, that has just made me and my mate stop and think in the cab during our nightshift. Hope the lads/or lasses are okay! Also we never tend to think of how traumatic it must be for the call takers and dispatchers.It must be hard to be part of something right from the begining then have to wait to see what has actually happened!

  5. whatever Says:

    Take it from me, the EMD was in bits but she did fantastic under the circumstances. Horrible for all involved

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  7. K Says:

    @ Stuart

    Yes is the simple answer, although the chances of the baby surviving are miniscule if mum has been in cardiac arrest for more than about 5 minutes, we would continue CPR and transport urgently to try and save the baby via post mortem c-section….

  8. Posh Totty Says:

    Jeeez that really does make you stop and think, how awful

  9. Nee Naw - Tragedy | Says:

    [...] Nee Naw – Tragedy [...]

  10. Jon Delaunt Says:

    Oh fuck. I wasn’t expecting that. I was all ready for a full eclampsia, which my midwife friend tells me is a very bad thing in itself, but that has knocked me for six.

    For every crew like them (but particularly that crew), there’s always a cup of tea at my station. God bless them.

  11. Natalie Says:

    Oh my God, that was a brutal story. So awful to have such tragedy result from such a silly thing, but I guess that’s the way life sadly works sometimes, and why we should appreciate every day (not always easy.) Her poor family. :(

  12. Dorota Says:

    Poor mum, poor baby, poor family! I read this story yesterday and can’t stop thinking about it…

    I wonder, if her daughter had realised her mum was choking, what could she have done, apart from calling 999? Can the Heimlich manoeuvre be performed on a heavily pregnant person? Should she have tried to remove the bone? How?

  13. Ailbhe Says:

    Possibly she could have had her lean over a chair so that she faced forwards and down, and bashed her sharply on the back, the way one is told to do with a small baby? Anyway if they’d realised she was choking before the ambulance got there the crew would have had a second or two more to act in, wouldn’t they?

    But how a 16-year-old should know the difference between “my calm reliable mother in early labour choking on chicken bone” and “my calm reliable mother in early labour panicking and in obvious terrifying distress for no reason” I don’t know.

  14. Rachel Says:

    I don’t suppose you are able to tell him – ever so politely – that he has been logged as an abusive caller? If not, perhaps the system could be changed to allow it, as it might bring the odd abuser up short and save you all a bit of aggro.

  15. Anthony Says:


    The standard method of back blows and abdominal thrusts can be performed on a pregnant casualty, as long as the abdominal thrusts are performed above the bump.

  16. Adobe Coupon Code Says:

    how awful :s

  17. XaDvAnT Says:

    If it's any consolation, the baby probably wouldn't have survived since according to your due date it was 11 months premature…

    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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