Living with the dead
This is not an anecdote about a specific job, like the other posts in this series. It is rather a reflection on death, and on dealing with it in the role of an ambulanceman. It is not meant to be depressing, though it may read that way. It is part of my reflection on those years, as I get older.
Before I joined the London Ambulance Service, I had seen one dead body. When I was young, my maternal grandfather died. He was only 65, and died suddenly. I was taken to see him in his coffin, which was in my grandparents’ front room, for a vigil before the funeral. My enduring memory of that night, was not of my first dead body, but of my uncle crying. My grand-dad just looked as if he was asleep, and I did not find it distressing.
Decades later, and I have seen many hundreds of dead people. I have watched them die, unable to do more for them. I have been having a conversation with someone, only to look up from my equipment, and realise that they were dead. I have seen people who had been found dead after lying undiscovered for weeks in a hot summer, and had to remove bodies found floating in the Thames. I have seen dead children, and helped to deliver a baby that was dead as it arrived into the world. There have been bodies of people who had died from violent acts; shootings, stabbings, and beatings, and others blasted by terrorist bombings, or consumed by fire.
I have tried, without success, to resuscitate a teenager, drowned in a swimming pool, and tiny children who had fallen victim to cot death, as their distraught mothers screamed uncontrollably. I have had to tell an old lady, that her husband of 50 years has gone, and seen the loss in the expression on her face. I have picked up the bodies of suicides, having found them still hanging, smashed into pavements after jumping from buildings, or cut to pieces under moving trains. I have watched people struggle to cling to their last few moments of life; the desperation, and fear of the unknown, discernible in their wide-eyed stares.
There have been the tragi-comic deaths. The man dressed in his wife’s clothes, dying as he masturbated, found by his confused and disgusted family. The overweight man who died as he made love to a prostitute, so heavy on top of the woman, she was still struggling underneath him, as we arrived to help. An elderly lonely man, dead on his bed next to a partially deflated, garish blow-up doll, as well as the auto-erotic asphyxiations, once a common find. A dead alcoholic, his cat sitting on his head, looking for all the world like a fur hat. The one constant with these deaths, the victims always died alone. To some extent, everyone does.
Then there are the places of death. Emaciated junkies, crammed into toilet cubicles, the needle still in their arms. Toilets are surprisingly popular places for people to die. It seems strange, until you realise that urgent bodily functions often precede a demise. Vagrants are often found dead in large refuse containers, having crawled in there to escape the weather. Stairwells are also a common place to die. Murder victims lie in them, drug users hide in them, and victims of crime are pursued into them. Roads and traffic provide their allotted share of bodies. Mangled in the wreckage, or struck at speed, catapulted along the tarmac. Cyclists’ bodies wedged under trucks, youngsters under buses, all dead the same. Stranger’s bedrooms, canal banks, inside supermarkets, in a crowded tube train carriage, or in the middle of a busy building site. There is nowhere that someone will not die.
There are good and bad weeks. I recall one early shift where the first three jobs all dealt with a dead body of some sort. Our colleagues joked that we should swap the ambulance for a hearse and carry a scythe, like the Grim Reaper. There could be a period of as long as a few days when you did not deal with a death, though that was rare. This was balanced by other incidents, where one job would provide multiple deaths. Mainly because of where I worked, I had some contact with many of these. The Hyde Park bombing, 11 soldiers killed, and many horses too. Harrods bombing, 6 killed. Ladbroke Grove train crash, 31 killed, as well as hundreds terribly injured. To a lesser, or in one case, greater degree, I was at the scene of these incidents, and dealt with all this death, as best as I could.
There are many deaths that fade from memory, and others that can be recalled with ease. The sight of a man sprawled in a chair, with a large knife protruding from his chest, or what was left of a man’s face after he had shot himself with a large-calibre pistol; things like that are easily remembered. If you stay in the job long enough, you start to identify with some deaths. They begin to get closer to your age, and you discover, perhaps for the first time, a real sense of your own mortality. If you are 27 years old, and a man in front of you is dying, and he is 60, you think he is getting on a bit, and has had a fair run at life. As you approach 50, you start to see yourself lying there, like looking in a mirror. One third of my life spent looking at death.
It was time to go.
Is it any wonder that people say I am grumpy, and easily depressed? 🙂