Ambulance stories (18)

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? πŸ™‚

74 thoughts on “Ambulance stories (18)

  1. That was a powerhouse of a post. You aren’t a grumpy old man, Pete. I have read far too many of your posts to know that. You are seasoned to life. And that has made you practical, yet full of thinking and heart. Ollie knows that, too. Best to you, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Jennie. That was written in 2012, and I had not long left working for the Police. My nickname in the Police Special Operations Group was ‘Grumpy Pete’. πŸ™‚
      This post was written to examine so much of my life that I had never really thought about until then.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a memorable post. Death kind of disappeared from our lives in modern times, while centuries ago death was always present: our fathers and mothers used to die at home, as well as the grandmothers and grandfathers. Nowadays we keep death at a distance, but of course it’s always there. Working in the health sector you were closer to death than most of us, and your reflections are actually very profound. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. During the Great Depression, my grandfather worked as a mortician’s assistant as a sideline to his being the Town’s Cemetery Caretaker. At the occasion of my Uncle’s death and viewing at the funeral home, the mortician form whom my grandfather worked discovered who I was and told me many stories of people he with the assistance of my grandfather had prepared for viewing and subsequent burial. That evening I essentially learned why my Grandfather drank heavily.
    Warmest regards, Theo

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, mortuaries are the most depressing places. I have some experiences of them that I would rather forget. Including a hot summer at St Mary’s Hospital, when the fridges were full, and they were stacking bodies on the floor, then covering them with ice.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Such a poignant post Pete. I couldn’t even imagine having to see that much death as just one death plays on me for a long time. I couldn’t take feeling all that pain for others. I have a friend married to a now retired policeman who has shared some of what he’s seen in his life serving and it’s so easy to understand how those who provide service to us suffer from PTSD, depression, and often alcoholism. They’ve seen too much. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I can’t imagine what it is like to tell a person his or her loved one has passed. When I was seventeen and driving the car on a family vacation, I remember being the first car on the scene following a horrible accident involving several fatalities. It is not the kind of thing one ever forgets.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Pete. When you do something every day for over a third of your life, you do actually get used to it. But some aspects, and certain incidents, never really settle in the mind.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Like

  6. This post makes me think of all the brave and courageous souls who do this job. When I see an ambulance in our city I usually think of car accidents and senior deaths. Your thoughts made me think of nearby Los Angeles and the reality that those horrors are a daily occurrence.
    We are all a product of the things we have seen, done, and felt. I hope you have had some equal experiences of joy, calm, and happiness.
    I am so enjoying following your blog.
    Lauren

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for those kind words, Lauren.
      Yes, I had many pleasant and amusing experiences in that job, and my dog Ollie has brought pleasure to my retirement in many ways too. I am lucky to have the time to look back on my life, when many of my good friends from that time have already died.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ve found as the years pass dealing with the relatives has got harder and harder, the grief of relatives keeps the memory of specific purple plus jobs in my mind.
    All the best Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I had no idea of the ways you had to confront death on that job. Somehow I had just thought of taking people to the hospital. What a devastating collection of images to remain with you. Here I have just seen many dead people laid out for the wake. They have all been prettied up.

    Liked by 1 person

        1. We had slightly different rules. If someone was ‘beyond help’, (over 30 minutes) we could request a coroner’s officer, or police surgeon, to declare death. If they were not available, we could remove the body to hospital (our decision) to have a doctor pronounce death on arrival. (The same system you mention) That later changed, to allow paramedics to declare death. Once that happened, we did not have to move the body. That was done by undertakers, who were ‘on-call’. Under 30 minutes, we had to attempt resuscitation, and take the person to the emergency room, for a doctor to declare death.
          Best wishes, Pete.

          Liked by 1 person

  9. My Pete. I’m sorry…I often think of you first responders. How do you do it? And then,I thank God you do it…I’ve thought of you medical people…How do you handle it? How do you look at death and know that it is looking back at you? And then I thank God that he created souls brave enough to do it. Souls like you, Pete. I know your not religious. I respect that. I’m not interjecting my spiritual thoughts to antagonize you or to aggravate you. I just want you to know that I appreciate what you sacrificed. What you learned. Your training. Your skill. I hope that the memories of those you saved overpower the memories of those you could not. I am going to paraphrase this great and, I hope, comforting thought. Of course, it is not my own…”There is no greater love than the love that compels a person to risk his or her own life, to save another.” That’s you, Pete.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Pam. You could never aggravate me, honestly. You’re my friend. πŸ™‚

      I just write stuff like this in the hope of educating people about what goes on. It happens while they are hard at work, watching game shows, looking at Facebook, or putting their kids to bed. It goes on all day, every day, with no breaks for Christmas, or any other holiday.
      And someone is doing it.
      These days, (at least in the UK) everyone has an opinion about the emergency services. This is mostly based on severely-edited documentaries, assumptions, or biased news reporting. But few of them have the first idea what it is really like, especially in a huge city like London.
      If they learn something from reading things like this, then I may have done some good.

      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 2 people

  10. Heck, some people might be suicidal after all those years on an ambulance, but you go out and take Ollie for walks, you interact with fellow bloggers and your posts, a majority, are not dark at all. Don’t sell yourself short. You spent a lot of years doing your best to extend the lives of the people you came in contact with – you should be quite proud, my friend.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Thanks, Marina, I appreciate that. But it was a good job, and gave back to the community. It also suited my left-wing Socialist ideals back then. So worth doing, even though it was badly paid when I did it. πŸ™‚
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Like

  11. Ahh, well, this post reveals volumes about you, Pete!
    You listed your experiences — a long career stuffed into a post — and it was exhausting to read what you went through. You have experienced the horror and sadness and the waste as though you went to battle and survived. I can only imagine how this has affected your personality and your temperament. The reward is the admiration of us all who applaud you and your career as a first responder. You are a true hero. Hopefully, it is the salve on your wounds.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I can honestly say that I never once felt ‘heroic’, Cindy. But of course I appreciate your kind words, as I always do. I wonder why you think this reveals volumes about me, more so than many similar posts?
      Best wishes, Pete. x

      Like

      1. It explains your preference for crime and dark thematic story lines. It explains your grouchiness and gloomy take on the world. Your cynicism and the way your mind is always going around until it drives you nuts.
        I could go on, but I would feel the need to charge you for my analytical services. πŸ˜‰

        Liked by 2 people

  12. A thought-provoking post, Pete. I see an ambulance and while I know they’re going to a most-likely horrifying scene, I never realized how often it leads to death.
    Thank you for all that you did to ease their way. ❀

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks, Jaquie. Around 250 people die in London every day, not allowing for multiple deaths in accidents or terrorist incidents. So not every ambulance there is going to a death. But over 20-odd years, the accumulated total I saw was quite staggering.
      I appreciate your kind words, and also the follow of this blog.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

              1. True, although most of Canada’s population is in its southern areas, with vast uninhabited regions in the north. It would be interesting to see that rendered in some of those maps you posted about recently. Also, when I read posts by bloggers in the UK who post photos, I’m often surprised by how much open country there is. Somehow I’ve visualized you folks crammed cheek by jowl and built up from coast to coast.

                Liked by 1 person

                1. Here is that map of Canada’s population for you, Audrey.
                  https://geopoliticalfutures.com/population-density-of-canada/

                  There is a lot of open country in the UK. Most of the population lives in the major cities, and is crowded around the north-west, industrial midlands, and the congested south-east. Wales and Scotland are relatively ’empty’, and farming counties, like here in Norfolk, have mostly uninhabited agricultural land.
                  This population map of Britain shows what I mean.
                  https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Gridded-UK-population-density-based-on-the-UK-census-at-the-5-km-5-km-grid-spatial_fig2_292189735

                  Best wishes, Pete.

                  Liked by 1 person

                  1. Thanks for the maps, Pete! The population of Canada would fit into the UK comfortably with space to spare. And the UK map confirms what you say about how your population is distributed. So people can escape from the urban scene if they want to.

                    Liked by 1 person

  13. I think I’ve said this before Pete, but just in caseβ€”you and everyone else in your profession have my deep admiration. I honestly don’t know how you coped, especially with the deaths of children. I was a β€œCandy Striper” for about a year when I was a teen. That ended when a child I had grown close too died from cancer on the pediatrics floor where I was volunteering.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think you get much closer to the patients when you are nursing, Kim. Most of the time for us, it was 20-30 minutes of something nasty, then we moved on to the next job.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 2 people

  14. Powerful writing, Pete, based on many years spent looking clearly at the stark facts of human life and human death. Thanks for doing the job and helping many. Thanks for bearing witness to the essential loneliness of life in this world. Still, the older I get, the more I intuit that I have never been alone, even for a moment.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Some of the most valuable and humanizing experiences I have had in my life have consisted of blows I could not avoid and incredibly painful sights I could not look away from or escape. That’s the kind of thing I heard and felt in your words. You were the right person to see and deal with these terrible events.

        Liked by 1 person

  15. That was a difficult read.

    My first 999 job was someone who jumped out of the 13th floor of an office building next to UCH. If he’d jumped out the other side, he’d have landed in the ambulance bay. I’ll always remember his watch strap was broken. But his watch was still working. It was a Sekonda, if anyone is looking for a robust watch. I can’t remember what I ate yesterday, but I’ll never forget that watch.

    And then there was the week of cot deaths. Three in one week. It was always difficult. I think we had to develop a special sense of humour, but no one else really understands it. Which is probably just as well.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks, Ian. I know you were ‘there’ mate. I remember things like that watch. A young woman who jumped out of a tower block on the Edward Woods Estate was in a terrible state, but I became fixated on the fact that she hadn’t even laddered her tights. Strange how the mind tries to allow us to cope with such things.
      Cheers, Pete.

      Like

  16. Reblogged this on Stevie Turner and commented:
    Yes this is a depressing post, but it shows just what ambulance staff have to deal with. We tend to be shielded from death in our everyday lives, but we must thank people like Pete who did a job that few would want to do.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. I’ve only ever seen one dead body – an old woman who had died in the residential home I worked in. I didn’t want to see my parents in their coffins – too distressing. As I near to 62 I am aware of my own mortality and that of my husband. It’s best to live each day as though it were our last…

    Liked by 2 people

      1. That was a tough way of life for you and others in the same profession. It must be hard to constantly deal with the darker sides of life. And maybe just as hard to clear it from your mind.

        My daughter once worked in the funeral industry and when she started to talk about having a family, I urged her to change careers. I wanted her to experience life, rather than death, on a daily basis. She did and she is thankful for her decision.

        I could not have done what you did. It is one of those careers many of us are so thankful others do so we are not required to do so. I cannot imagine what you have experienced. I would be taking those hours long walks with Ollie, too – just to experience life. And many of them.

        Liked by 3 people

        1. Thanks, Maggie. I think people who work in the funeral industry do a great job. I wouldn’t want to have done that. It’s one thing in an ’emergency’ situation, but quite another on a cold slab.
          The long walks with Ollie do help a great deal.
          Best wishes, Pete.

          Liked by 1 person

  18. Reblogged this on beetleypete and commented:

    A rather sombre post from 2012, about my time as an EMT in London, with particular emphasis on dealing with death. Only one of you has left a comment in the past, and it has hardly ever been read. Given the content, I suppose that is understandable.

    Like

  19. I was a TQAP at 26 and when I was TS’d my first “work” death when was a 26 year old died in her sleep. Thats the one; not just because of their age but other home factors too.

    Like

All comments welcome

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.