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.