Ambulance stories (19)

Phone calls in the night

Some jobs in the Ambulance Service do not involve rushing off on blue lights, heading for the local Casualty department, trying hard to save the life of the patient on board. They do not involve any contact with the patient at all, save for a brief confirmation that nothing can be done.

Most people who die from natural causes, do so in the early hours of the morning. They are sometimes discovered later, often much later, but the chances are, that they actually passed away after midnight, and before 6am. Of course, the Ambulance Service is a 24 hours a day operation, so if the unfortunate person is found, an ambulance will usually be summoned to the scene. The deceased person may have been found by a carer, if in an old people’s home, or possibly by a neighbour, who might have a key, and be inclined to check up on their friend.  In many cases, they are discovered by their wife or husband, who had the misfortune to wake up next to a corpse, that was once their life-partner.

This is often a shock to that person, who is usually elderly, though not always. Sometimes, it had been expected, but the reality of the discovery is something altogether different to expectations. In these situations, we always tried our best to help the bereaved person. We would cover the body, take the relative into another room, make them tea, or get them whatever they asked for. We would summon the Police, to report the event as a death, and talk to the surviving woman or man about their life, and whether they had family or friends who they might like to come and sit with them.

The most common request, was for us to inform a son, or daughter, and to tell them that their father or mother was dead. We would be shown a well-thumbed address book, and given a name to look up. We would ask about the health and character of the person that we were going to ring. They might well be quite elderly themselves, and have a heart condition, or emotional problems. We had to be sure that our call in the night did not precipitate another crisis, many miles from London. Once reassured, we would make the call, talk to a stranger who we would never see, and give them some very bad news. They never questioned it, challenged the person calling; requesting identity checks, or even asking to speak to the other parent. They always accepted that it was true. When you get a phone call in the early hours of the morning, even before you pick up the receiver, you know that nothing good is going to come of it.

I made these calls on many occasions. However, I have never forgotten one of the first times I ever did this. Having comforted a distraught old lady, who had woken up to go to the toilet at 3am, only to realise that her husband of 58 years was dead in the bed beside her, I was asked to ring her son. She told me that he lived in Reading, a town to the west of London, not a difficult journey. She assured me that he was a fit and healthy 55 year old man, and that it would be perfectly all right to call and break the news. I rang the number, and it was answered very quickly. The voice on the other end was heavy with sleep, and I waited for the man to regain his full senses. I confirmed he was the person that I had called, and I told him that I was sorry to inform him that his father had died, and that his mother was going to be alone in the house later that day.

His reply took me aback, and was not what I had expected at all. “For Christ’s sake, it’s 4 in the morning, are you crazy, waking me up to tell me this now? Tell my Mum, I will give her a ring when I get home from work today.” I looked over at the lady, the hung-up call still buzzing from the receiver. I honestly had no idea what to say to her.

Family love? It is rare, I can tell you that.

32 thoughts on “Ambulance stories (19)

  1. I am speechless too. You are honoured Pete for always taking so much care about strangers. Even some priests i know would not have been so empathic. You are true too, family love is something special. I know by myself too. Michael

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Michael. The attitude of some people to their close family has often surprised me. But we have that old saying, “You can choose your friends, but not your family”.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow. Whatever his reasons (and he might have had many and good), it seems odd to react in such a way to a stranger’s call. Perhaps it would have been different if somebody who knew him had called, but I suspect he might have not. At least his mother didn’t have to hear it directly herself (at least at that point). Priorities, right? Thanks, Pete. You’ve had your share of experiences of all shades and colours, for sure.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Speechless! But then in the context of some of the comments, who knows what he was like, just a shame for his mum.
    I’m told that my dad, on hearing about my sisters death, said ‘ok, thank you, goodbye’ Needless to say I won’t appreciate a call at 4 in the morning!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. He wasn’t a pleasant guy, Eddy, and his Mum gave no indication of any family issues that might have caused him to act that way. But I was estranged from my Dad, and when I was informed of his death, I thanked his cousin for letting me know, then hung up refusing to take down details of his funeral arrangements.
      Best wishes, Pete.


    1. We used to make general conversation, Mary. How long they had been married, where they met, etc.
      I would sometimes look at old wedding photos, and suggest they remembered them that way. It was an unpleasant aspect of the job, but something you developed some skills in over time.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. You are right about phone calls in the middle of the night or early morning. Well over 50 years ago, my then wife picked up the phone that rang in the middle of the night. She listened for less than a minute and then said, thank you and replaced the receiver. Then she started to giggle. Cautiously I asked her what was up? She managed to stop giggling and then said, “I was afraid it was about dad. But, thank God, it was only an obscene phone call.” She was relieved. Warmest regards, Theo

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Well, one never knows what did happen in the past to make the heart of this man so hard… Most of us have or did have caring and loving parents – but some don’t or didn’t. So it is better not to judge somebody whom we don’t know before we know his story, walked in his shoes, so to say. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pete, sad but very true. I had a similar experience once after an elderly chap jumped in front of a train on the Hammersmith and City line in west London. It was slightly unusual in that his wife had gone to the tube station, and seeing it closed seemed instinctively to know it was her husband. On return to her house, we put the kettle on and started to open the contacts book. I was soon running out of numbers to call as family member after family member expressed their relief to hear of the old mans demise. Eventually, a young nephew came round on his motorcycle to sit with a lovely old lady, and explain what an abusive nightmare the old man had been. So hated was he by the extended family that they seemed to forget his long suffering partner. It appeared that even in death, the old man managed to inflict a final moment of pain and shame on his wife. A work memory I would rather not have.
    K x

    Liked by 2 people

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