Tears in Heaven

I’ve mentioned this job in a post already but, since it was my “one job”, I feel like it deserves more. I realised that I’ve never written or spoken about it in any kind of detail before, but a recent conversation with a friend and colleague made me think perhaps I should.

The patient was 11 years old. Only 11 years old. Our screen said they were 7. I only found out a few days later what their true age was. I never knew their name, but I was the first person to look into their empty eyes after the life had gone from them.

I was attendant at that point, my partner driving. We had passed the point on the road, a main dual carriageway, minutes before the incident. There’s a strong chance we had seen them alive at the roadside. The job came up on our screen and we had to find a gap to turn the ambulance around. It was rush hour so traffic was heavy, our blue lights stopped the vehicles around us as we crossed onto the other side of the road and made our way back to the scene. The job was a “person vs vehicle”, never good on a main road. Then it was updated “7yo vs van”…

We passed the incident on the opposite carriageway and desperately looked for a gap in the central reservation. Traffic was at a standstill, making it hard to negotiate. As we approached the scene I jumped out and ran over to the patient. They were face down with people around them. I asked two of them to help me carefully turn the patient over while I managed their neck and head. As we rolled them over, I saw the head injury, in the shape of a large, open wound. Their eyes were empty and staring. I found a very weak pulse at their neck, they weren’t breathing. My partner arrived, having brought the ambulance closer. I asked for the immobilisation kit and a trolley, and explained the lack of output. The patient was rapidly immobilised and wheeled into the ambulance, a line in their arm, a tube for breathing. We agreed I’d drive, my partner was smaller than myself, so could fit in the gap between the trolley and the attendant’s chair performing cpr as we wound our way through the busy rush hour traffic. I took the keys and turned the ambulance carefully, then began the dangerous drive. We were around 10 miles away from the hospital, we had a number of hot spots to pass through.

The police hadn’t arrived, but we couldn’t wait. I called control on the way in with an update on the patient’s condition and requested the paediatric trauma team met us on arrival at the hospital. I recall talk of a police escort but we had no time to waste while it was being arranged.

I don’t remember much about the journey, but I broke a few speed limits (legally), and somehow made it through traffic in record time. Oddly I felt no satisfaction in that for a long time.

The staff at hospital were indeed there to meet us, and they took over CPR. After a swift hand over we went back to the ambulance and sat. Said nothing, just sat, then we had to go back to our station as our shift was over.

I was on days off the next few days, probably not the best thing as it played on my mind as I sat at home. Calling the counselling service was not an option, that would be seen as failure. Three days later I went back to work, to find out my partner had taken 2 days off because of it all.

We were invited to join the A&E staff at their debrief meeting, there we found the patient’s true age, and the fact that they were dead before we reached them the impact had crushed the base of their brain. It wouldn’t have changed what we did.

I have vague recollections of a conversation with the van driver. I sincerely hope they had some kind of support. Also the patient’s 7 year old sibling, who saw the whole thing and stood at the roadside watching as we tried to save them. There are often fresh flowers at the scene that remind me, but now I’ve put the incident where it belongs, in my memories. I did my job, now it’s not for me to grieve.

In the months after I left the service I turned that young, lifeless patient over on that road lots of times in my head, in my dreams. I knew there was nothing else we could have done for them, but still it played over and over. No one in the service cared. Why would they? It was my job, I signed up for it.

Today I found out a close friend had a similar job in another part of the country. This is their one job. The service has done nothing. Offered no support.

Crews go through this on a regular basis, and there are no official checks or support. Stress, PTSD and suicide are allvery real and far too common results.

Something needs to change, but it has to start in the offices of managers.

Who saves the life savers?

Someone told me about a TV program broadcast in Scotland recently. It suggested that almost one in ten paramedics suffered from PTSD, and one paramedic interviewed was diagnosed with it worse than had they been on a battlefield! They also said that the Ambulance Service had declined the opportunity to give a representative the chance to be interviewed.

These are the men and women who are responding to emergency calls daily, and their employer doesnt even have the desire to comment on national TV.

There was also talk of things that had been put in place to help crew members and front line staff, but what I hear from those front line staff is different. Other than proving that few in positions of management are actually aware of the reality that goes on outside their office doors, a fact that has been known by ambulance crews for many years, this is nothing new.

The above is not just limited to one part of the country either, it is widespread across all the ambulance services in the UK. I’ve spoken about the 5 minute breaks we used to get after bad jobs, and the phone numbers that get handed out – Call someone who you’ve never met before, who has never met you and never will, and tell them over a telephone line how you feel… Then hope that your colleagues don’t find out because you’ll feel like a failure and they might think that you are unfit to do the job.

That is the reality, that is what ambulance services need to address, and that is why crew members struggle on, until it gets too much and they can’t go on any longer.

I’ve held back slightly in previous posts, but I see no reason to any more. I could write things that would (or should) probably have ambulance service managers squirming, and can back them up with strong evidence, but that’s not the purpose of my blog.

When you watch people die in front of you and you have done everything possible. When you’re faced with an angry drug addict who’s life you just saved but who’s high you took away in doing so. When you face countless drunks who threaten to kill you and your family when you are just trying to help with the injuries they got from fighting. When you spend 30 minutes or more working on a patient, giving CPR, providing advanced life support, then you hear that A&E staff gave up shortly after you handed the patient over….and then you pass that person’s relatives in the corridor…

“Here’s a number you can call if it’s too much.”

This isn’t something that can be changed overnight, and I don’t have any answers or solutions, I only have my own experience and knowledge of what others have been through.

My strong hope is that the Ambulance Service in Scotland, now these issues have been highlighted, now has to act, positively. Maybe other television companies will pick up the story in England, Wales and Ireland. Until the public are aware of the quiet suffering that all emergency workers go through, suffering that sometimes costs their own lives, not much will change.

During my time on the road I saw how my colleagues reacted, I saw the brash, faux toughness, the hard act. I even did it myself. But there comes a time when that doesn’t work anymore. For me, that time was when I left the service. My defenses fell because they werent being topped up for another shift. My support mechanism (my colleagues) was gone. Suddenly I had to face everything I’d seen and done on my own. I can’t heap enough praise on the people around me, the ones who tolerated me at that time. But there were people who didn’t wish to tolerate it, and friendships ended, making it harder. Nevertheless, I got through it with the help of the ones who stayed, and I know of others in the same position.

I’ve spoken in other posts of one friend who didn’t. This post is for them, and the ones like them. For the families and people they leave behind.

Maybe it’s time to think about the health of the health workers. To start monitoring their mental health, to start giving them regular mental health checks. To start saving the lives of the people who save lives.

“But that only happens to soldiers!”

That’s actually what a friend said to me recently when I told them another friend, who is still with the Ambulance Service, had been signed off with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Until a few years ago, I’d have agreed with my friend, but now I know different.

It’s difficult to describe the emotional hardness you develop. When you walk into a drug den and see the addict, clearly dead, with the needle still in their arm. When you cut someone down from a tree. When you have to explain to someone that the last time they spoke to their partner was just that. I could go on, but there’s no need. The emotional hardness happens because the people you work with understand, and there’s an unconscious support there.

When I left the Ambulance Service that support ended overnight. I wasn’t aware at the time, but looking back I can see the signs and symptoms. My support mechanism ended overnight and I went through a form of PTSD. An ex-colleague and myself often chat about jobs we’d been called to, but sometimes…very often…that’s not enough. We recently lost another friend and fellow crew member that we both trained with, the job became too much and broke him. Now we have become acutely aware how huge the lack of support for ambulance crews all over the country is.

After a particularly nasty job, I was once given a phone number I could call, should I find I was struggling. For those who don’t know any ambulance crew members, they may appear kind and caring, and they are, but underneath they become a certain amount of tough and hard. It’s the only way they can survive. To call a number and talk to an anonymous person, who knows nothing about you, is beyond failure!

The purpose of this post is not to point the finger at the Ambulance service. It is to highlight the vulnerability of every person who works in an ambulance, and to highlight the need for a much greater system of support. I am fully aware that other services deal with the same situations, but perhaps someone else will write about it from their perspective.

Next time you see an ambulance go by with its lights flashing, spare a thought for the crew. Think about what might be going through their minds. When you go to sleep at night, think about the crew members, and what nightmares they might be having. If you know a crew member, show your support. Sometimes they look tough, but underneath they’re just normal people……….well, most of them are!

After I posted today’s blog, someone sent me this link. They only cover some parts of the country, but it’s a start: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/ambulance/mental-wellbeing-ambulance/

Another charity just released a single to help raise funds to provide assistance for emergency workers suffering PTSD. The charity is PTSD999, the band are Burn out and the song is (appropriately) a cover of the late David Bowie’s song Heroes. Download it from Amazon or iTunes for a meare 99p.