An Unconvinced EMT

At one time, I used to post a lot of true stories about my time in the London Ambulance Service. Eventually, they can become repetitive, such is the nature of the job. And some are hard to believe, I understand that. Because truth really is stranger than fiction. If anyone has never read any, they can all be found in the ‘Categories’ on the right of any page, under ‘Ambulance Stories’. And you have my sworn promise that each and every one of them is 100% accurate.

However, there is one thing about doing that job that you may not be aware of. People lie.

In their desire to make sure that an emergency ambulance will be sent, members of the public are not above lying. In cases where they are not actually inventing an illness, they do not hesitate to ’embellish’ what symptoms might be presenting, until an everyday bellyache can be made to sound like a ruptured Aortic Aneurysm. Others with indegstion after consuming a huge Indian meal and six beers will say they are ‘having a heart attack’, without trying to take any antacid medicine first.

And you may find it hard to believe that some people actually want to be in hospital. They like the attention, the sympathy, the company, and the sense of drama as they are wheeled into the emergency room. Would you be surprised to know that some people actually call 999 for an ambulance as much as 100 times a year? Or that so-called ‘nuisance callers’ are actually sent letters telling them that no more ambulances will be sent in response to their frequent calls? And it is not rare, and not just lonely people, or elderly people. Neither are most of them mentally ill, in any form. They just like having the emergency services come to them.

Then there is the strange world of ‘Munchausen by Proxy’. If you have never heard of this, it is where someone calls you on behalf of a relative, and tells you that they are very ill or injured, and need medical treatment. In most cases I experienced, this was usually a female caller, asking for help for a baby or small child. In a few very sad cases, it was discovered later that they had actually injured the child themselves, or poisoned them in some way that proved they needed emergency treatment. When I joined up as an EMT, I never expected to be called to a child injured by its own mother just so that she could get attention. This is also more common than you might expect, especially in a huge city like London. Here is a proper explanation of it.

This also has a ‘twin’, in the singular ‘Munchausen’s Syndrome’, where the caller has injured or drugged themselves, or invented an illness in order to seek medical attention or admission to hospital.

As well as wasting the time of the control room call-takers, the ambulance crews that could be doing something better, and the overworked hospital staff, they create something else. After years of this, day in day out, ambulance staff become cynical, disbelieving, and jaded. Someone tells you that they have this disease, or that illness, and you don’t take their word for any of it. Don’t get me wrong here, they are still treated respectfully and professionally, but they have created a culture whereby only visible injury or diagnosed serious symptoms are considered to be ‘worthwhile’ by those doing the job.

By the time I had been in the job for fifteen years, this situation had become so widespread, that a term was invented for it. ‘Paramedic Burnout’.

Officially, this was used to describe working in a very stressful and often harrowing job for so long, that staff became overwhelmed by it, similar to PTSD. Unofficially, it was staff who were sick to death of constantly attending time-wasting calls, being lied to, and being verbally and physically abused. I got to the stage, and so did many of my colleagues, where I firmly believed that at the very least, around fifty percent of the calls we were being sent to were spurious, or did not require an emergency attendance.

It comes to something where going to a train crash where 30 people have been killed and over 400 injured, is referred to as a ‘good job’. Or when you walk over to the body of a young woman who has jumped from a twenty-second floor balcony, turn to your colleague and say “At least she meant to do it”.

The next time you move your car over for an ambulance coming past with lights flashing, and sirens blaring, thanks for doing that. As they take their lives in their hands to speed through traffic heading for the next emergency, let’s hope they are not just on their way to someone who has eaten too much spicy food.

55 thoughts on “An Unconvinced EMT

  1. That sounds very harsh, and is certainly one of the other downsides of this profession. I honestly admit that I did not want to do that. As a society, we sometimes forget too quickly that someone then has to provide the social care that others would have to provide beforehand. Thank you for all your stories about your experiences, Pete! Very useful for understanding the situation. Best wishes, Michael

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have read about all these syndromes in my Psychology study. However, I could not fathom the extent of such inflicted conditions. Mothers hurting their children… It must require bravery to be a part of this. You deserve a salute. A very good post. Stirred my mind.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I always thought it was ironic that the time-wasting calls stressed us out so much more than the terrible genuine jobs we had to deal with. If we had only ever done ‘real jobs’, I would never have left to join the police to get a pay increase of almost 100% overnight.
      Thanks, Sue.
      Best wishes, pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I have often wondered what this Covid crisis has done to the first responders. I know I don’t have what it takes to do the job you had, Pete. I am glad you no longer must do it either.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Some Paramedics have tested positive. One not far from here was asked to leave his rented accommodation, for fear that he would bring the virus back from his job. I was around for the early AIDS scare, when there were similar issues around the job.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. As someone who has worked not as but with first responders, I can attest that I have heard similar stories from all of them. No one outside the field can imagine the stress. And everyone should be down on their knees in gratitude.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I spent all day Monday writing out words to dive into the transition from working as a waitress/bartender to being hired for Emergency Services Dispatching – – I couldn’t stop adding and actually revisiting some of the times during those early days coming in, adjusting, etc., what amazed, me, then flummoxed me and the step by step coping skills I put in place when I was surrounded by possible avenues of official training/support and/or the gruff, dark humour of the old hats in the industry who actually helped me to adopt/mimic coping skills (not always the best, long term, but still…) and how, after 15 years in the industry, on one front or another, I finally freed myself – and I seriously believe that much healing took place, for me, internally, on Monday – just because enough time and growth/understanding had been gained in other areas – while I ignored what I walked away from, finally, cuz not a viable ‘good fit’ for moi and my basic tender heart/sensitive personality – but yes, I hear ya – I only recently dove into all the reasons why I struggled so mightily with the stress of the change and I finally, years later, better understand the coping skills I put in place, one by one, instead of addressing root problems.

    On the other hand – that time has served me well – I get hepped up and passionate about things here and there, but often, when someone is having a meltdown over the copier not working, or the fax is out of toner, etc. and I secretly remind myself, “this isn’t 911″ – and if they get mad at me for ‘not talking it seriously” I just say –

    I worked the day of my my 25th birthday, and by the time I had my paperwork done and went home, 11 people had died either shortly before or while I was on the phone with a grieving mother, a panicked wife, or a concerned citizen who stopped to render aide/report/get help on the way – all of whom, I couldn’t do a damn thing for, but assure them help was on the way, try to get them focused enough so I could asses the scene EMS crews were responding to, to keep them safe as I could and I tell you – the copier feeder jamming is frustrating and yes, we by gummy need a new one or this one fixed, BUT it is not that big of a f***kin deal, overall –

    It was time spent in the ugliest, saddest most painful parts of our world that play out for someone, somewhere, every day and I had to leave before I drank myself to death after work just to sleep – on the other hand, I never lost the perspective of, “um, yeah – this is a frustration and incovenience – not life and death – calm the f** down will ya?” in subsequent jobs in less intense industries – – :).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Dispatching staff in London certainly had to deal with a huge incoming call volume, and verbal abuse from a large percentage of the callers. Things have changed a great deal in the time since I left that job, and those staff are now given ‘stress breaks’ after difficult calls. They can also request time out if they feel under pressure, and even ask to see a counsellor.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m always shocked when I hear stories of any of the emergency services getting abused and attacked by the public who they are serving. The thought that so many people don’t actually ‘get it’ is a sad reflection of humanity. These are the same crew that will be out having a party on the 4th of July (if they haven’t already) when the Covid restrictions are relaxed a bit.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Assaults on ambulance staff have actually increased since I left the job in 2001. One reason for this is the reluctance of the CPS to prosecute in so many cases. The other main cause is the amount of dangerously mentally ill people living in their own accommodation instead of being under supervision.
      Best wishes, Pete.


  7. Although I don’t know for sure (I’m sure you do), I would hope that there are laws that prohibit people from calling 911 so much. After a bit, I’m sure the dispatcher develops an attitude of “Again?” After a time, it must be like The Boy Who Cried Wolf.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There is a ‘rule’ that allows them to prohibit nuisance callers, and they can be prosecuted if the police consider it necessary. Regular callers to all emegency services become well-known. Since the advent of computers to record calls, they are also ‘flagged’, by address, phone number, or name.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Those tales always make me think of the boy who cried Wolf…A very good friend of ours was a paramedic(lives) in your area now so we have heard the tales…Funny story for you…my son who when younger with his first motor bike and seemed to find every patch of oil… came another cropper…said bike as he wouldn’t be parted from it went with him in the ambulance…

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Wow. Thank you for giving us this insight. As an educator there are some parallels in regards to the feeling of “burnout”. And I understand those seeking attention that become “regulars” to EMT’s and hospitals~I’ve seen that. The emotional energy, coupled with the physical demands, sounds utterly exhausting. Thank you sir for your service. And yes, I will remember this when I pull over.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Frank. Hot and humid in Beetley too. It was 90 degrees F today, and still 70 degrees F at almost 11:30 pm! One more day of the mini-heatwave, then it is supposed to break.
      Best wishes, Pete.


  10. Oh the memories of these calls. Have to admit I noticed I went through peaks and troughs usually running in 5 year cycles. Always remembering going to a house just over the rail lines opposite Hammersmith Hosp, about 3 am, fit young man, had tooth taken out earlier and the tooth socket was a bit red, he started quoting NHS rules and laws etc, You should have seen his face when I walked him over the bridge (over the rail lines) as to drive would have taken longer. And instead of taking him into the dedicated Ambulance entrance, walked him into the waiting room to be greeted by the staff with a welcome back for the 4th time that night…….. oh happy days.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I try not to think to hard about all those, Bobby. I concentrate on the funny jobs, and the bad (good) ones. I’m sure it still goes on, but not where I live now. One of my elderly neighbours was on the floor last winter, after suffering a stroke, and the ambulance took over four hours to get to her! She didn’t now anyone else’s number to summon help, so rang the GP. They called 999 for an ambulance, and that’s how long the response was.
      Cheers mate, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Pete, on the phone: “Hello? Is this 999?”
    999 Operator: “Yes, it is. What is the nature of your call, sir?”
    Pete: “I’m suffering from Paramedic Burnout! Can you send an ambulance?”
    911 Operator: “Yes. And don’t forget to wear your uniform!”

    Liked by 3 people

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