Bark at the moon

There’s a phenomenon know across all of the emergency services – the full moon. Ask any of them and there will be no doubts, a full moon brings out the crazies (can I call them that?).

Often during busy nights, when the jobs we’d be called to were of a strange nature, one of us would question the lunar status. Almost every time, the moon would be full.

Every job has to be treated as whatever appears on the information screen, until proven otherwise and, occasionally, it would be a genuine job. Even before starting a night shift, if we spotted the moon, we could confidently predict a surreal 12 hours ahead.

This also applied to being careful what you wished for. While on shift during a full moon, certain people (regulars) and certain types of job or ailments were never mentioned or they actualy came to be! I proved this one shift when I deliberately mentioned one regular patient and a couple of different illnesses at the start. Everything and everyone I mentioned appeared on our screen at some point during the next 12 hours!

I experienced one of my first stabbing incidents under a full moon. On reflection, I should have expected something abnormal. The job came through: a patient in their mid 30s, stab injury to their left leg with a bread knife. Most readers will know that a bread knife has a serrated edge that could do a lot of damage, on the way in…and on the way out. We ensured that the police were dispatched as we made our way to the scene, just in case the assailant was still in the area.

We arrived on scene at the same time as the police. I was attending so went into the house first. I walked in to the kitchen (where else would a bread knife be?) to find the patient sitting next to the kitchen table, with a rather large bread knife protruding from their left thigh. There wasn’t a whole lot of blood evident, but dangerous internal damage could not be ruled out. We would never remove a penetrating object anyway, that was for the staff at A&E to do after ensuring it was safe to do so.

I approached the patient, assessing them and the situation as I did so. They had been sitting with their head down, but raised it as I approached. Their face bore a manic smile that caused me to step back unexpectedly, standing on the foot of the police officer following behind me. “Good evening” I mumbled. “I’d stand up to greet you, but I have this stuck in my leg”. The patient made as if to take hold of the knife. I suddenly panicked that they were about to pull it out. “No! Let’s leave that there” I blurted out, images of arterial bleeds in my head.

One of the police officers began questioning the patient. They asked who had put the knife there. “They did” said the patient. “Who are they?” said the officer. “Them. Them”. Spotting our quizzical looks, the patient clarified – “Them!”, gesticulating wildly at their head. Alarm bells began ringing for us all. Loudly!

We had a mid-thirties patient with possible psychiatric issues, potentially armed with a large knife and a wound that could become highly concerning. Deep breath, reassess quickly. “Can you hear them just now?” said the police officer. “Don’t be stupid! They left when you arrived!”. Oddly, that made sense. The patient seemed calm and in control of themself. I explained that it would be bad to remove the knife, and that I wanted to wrap a bandage around it and their leg to hold it in place. They agreed, and I, cautiously, stepped closer to them.

While I was dressing the wound area, my partner had brought the folding wheelchair from the Ambulance. The, very compliant patient moved across to wheelchair and was wheeled out to the ambulance. “Thanks guys” said one of thd police officers as they were about to leave. Oh no! I wasn’t sitting in the rear of the ambulance with a somewhat disturbed patient on my own. The police have stab vests, ambulance crews have lovely thin uniforms. Reluctantly, one of the officers agreed to travel with me to the hospital while his partner followed in their police car.

The patient was unexpectedly relaxed for the journey, unsettling in itself. I handed over to a nurse at A&E and the on-call psychiatric nurse was called in to help.

I never found out what happened to that patient, mostly because I didn’t ask, but, if I think hard enough, I can still remember the manic look on their face when I first entered that kitchen.

I can’t think of any other job where I was completely on edge through the whole time I was with a patient. It took a bit of time to wind down after that job, but Control weren’t bothered. They had jobs stacking up.

The next job appeared on our screen and we went mobile….

One out, one in. The prequel

One out….

You never forget the first patient you lose. Mine was a frail elderly person who lived close to my ambulance station at the time. The job came in as a cardiac arrest, and that’s exactly what it was. We got there very quickly, the patient’s heart had stopped, and it was my job to try to save them. I began CPR, the first few chest compressions broke some ribs. The dull crack is audible across the room. My partner was setting up the O2 bag and mask, they looked over at me and nodded encouragingly. That was a sound I would hear many times during my career. Some adrenaline injections (for the patient!), and 20 minutes of CPR without any signs of self sustained heart activity dictated we stopped and declared the patient’s life ‘extinct’. But this was my first. Surely there was more we could do, something we had missed? My partner handed me the paperwork and I filled it out, just like I had been taught during my training.

Later, I reflected on the broken ribs with my partner. “It’s perfectly normal” they said. That’s exactly what it became to me. It was an indication that we were pressing down hard enough to make the patient’s heart pump blood properly. “Broken ribs will repair, stopped hearts need help” – I remember my instructors telling us as raw recruits. They didn’t explain the heart-sinking feeling we would experience each time it happened. It was a blunt reminder that this was a real person you were dealing with.

I lost count of the deceased patients I saw, each one making me harder inside. I had to be to cope. You have to treat them as ‘jobs’ not people. You didn’t know most of them before, so you couldn’t be upset. We joked among ourselves about ‘killing’ patients each time deaths occurred during shifts, not because we were twisted or enjoyed it, but because it was a way of coping with it.

If the patient was ‘gone’ before we arrived then distancing yourself was easier. If you knew them, usually as a regular, it was a bit tougher. The really hard ones were the ones you were talking to when you arrived. The ones who went into some form of arrest in front of you.

One patient who arrested on me lived in a nursing home. The staff were quick to point out the patient had a DNAR (Do Not Attempt Resuscitation – a legal document that prevents medical intervention in such situations). We asked to see the document as, without it, we must continue life support. The document arrived and we watched as the patient slowly faded away. As we had accepted the duty of care for that patient, we couldn’t leave until there were no more signs of life. Watching a life slip away in front of you is a strange experience. It’s difficult to explain the emotions involved, but none are good.

Then the hard walls go up again and control gives you a meal break. It’s a bizarre thing, but even now there’s not much will put me off food.

Coping mechanisms keep you going…..until something comes along that weakens them.

Recently I’ve heard of some charities that offer physical and practical support for crew members. Charities, not ambulance services themselves, not the NHS, although it looks like most only operate in England and Wales. I have heard, however, that one ambulance service (possibly more) has recently implemented a more practical support service for its staff. It will be interesting to see how it works.

One such charity, PTSD999, has recently employed the services of a rock legend to help record a version of the late David Bowie’s song Heroes. Please look them up on iTunes or Amazon. The band is called Burn Out (enough said). Just 99p gets you an amazing song and helps them provide such an important service. The charity offers support to all types of emergency workers, please support these guys and other charities like them. We hope the song does well. Their tagline is “help save the lives of those that save yours”.

So yes, deaths affect us but, most importantly, don’t forget that each time one life fades away a new one is created somewhere. We could be heroes, but that’s not why we do it….