Ambulance stories (22)

With the recent conviction for FGM in the news, I thought it appropriate to reblog this post, from 2012.


The Hammersmith Swordsman

In the early 1980’s, female circumcision was not something that I was well acquainted with. In truth, I don’t recall that I had heard of it at that time, though in recent years, it has received a lot of attention in the media. For those of you who are not that intimate with this practice, I will give a very basic version of what is involved. A young girl, sometimes only a baby, has parts of the outer lips of her vagina cut off, usually including her clitoris. The resulting wound is then stitched together, in a somewhat rudimentary fashion, with a small opening left, to allow the flow of bodily fluids. On her wedding night, her husband then cuts the sutures prior to having sex, thus ‘guaranteeing’ that he has wed a virgin. I think this is the process in a nutshell, please forgive me for…

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Ambulance stories (6)

An old post, from 2012. Almost unbelievable, but sadly true.



The above abbreviation stands for Foreign Object In Rectum, and was something that I would use on paperwork, completed during and after Emergency calls, in my time in the London Ambulance Service. Abbreviations were commonly used, to save time, ensure privacy, and because the space on the form for diagnostics and treatment was very small! Other frequently used abbreviations were;  WTASOS (Walked to Ambulance and sat on side). PMCCAH (Patient made comfortable and put in chair at the Hospital), and a personal favourite, MAMH (Mad as a March hare). They are not used these days, as the new forms have various tick boxes and codes, leaving little space for ‘artistic expression’.

In the early 1980’s, the Earls Court area in West London, was a well-known gathering point for the homosexual and lesbian communities in London. There were gay clubs and bars, many of which had been around for decades…

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Thinking Aloud On a Sunday


I was chatting to a friend on the phone the other day. He also happens to be an ex-colleague from my days as an EMT in the London Ambulance Service. We worked at the same base for many years, and he also later worked with me in a police control room, before I retired.

He told me a story about how he had recently returned to his home on the south coast, and had been told that his elderly aunt was ill. He went round to see her, and took her into hospital for a check up. They discharged her, and recommended that her family doctor attend, to carry out checks at her home. The doctor didn’t come as requested. Instead, he sent a Paramedic Practitioner, to call at the home of the old lady. This is something fairly new here. To save the time of general practice doctors, and also to save the cost of employing additional doctors to help, they use former ambulance paramedics who have attended an extended training course, to work in the community.

As the man was examining her, he turned to my friend, and said, “I know you, you used to work at North Kensington Ambulance Station, in London”. My friend was surprised that this man should have encountered him after all those years, but confessed that he didn’t recognise him at all. It turned out that he had spent some time as a shift relief on the West London rota, and had worked with my friend on more than one occasion. He continued by saying, “You had a bloke there, Pete Johnson, a real militant he was”.

He was talking about me.

As I left the ambulance service in 2001, it is always a surprise to me that anyone remembers me, unless they were close friends, or regular colleagues at the same base. This random man, now working over 80 miles away from where I might have met him, possibly worked with me once or twice, probably before 1990. I don’t remember him at all, but after almost 30 years, he certainly remembers me, and has strong opinions about what I was like too. I left a mark, undoubtedly, and half a lifetime later, my reputation continues, at least where this man is concerned.

That got me thinking. Yes, I was a militant. I was a union organiser, one of the first to go on strike in the 1989 National Dispute, and I voted for the Communist Party. I was around 36 years of age at the time, heavily involved in all aspects of the Trade Union, and politics outside of work too. But I never considered that I had a ‘reputation’, at least not in my day to day life as an EMT. I did the job to the best of my ability, and mostly played by the rules. I like to think that I got on well with 99% of my colleagues, and all the various medical departments and agencies we came into daily contact with. When I finally left to work for the Police, most people, outside of some senior managers, were sorry to see me go. At least I thought so.

Then 30 years later, a face from the past tells someone of my reputation. Not of my sense of humour, my kindness, or fairness. Nothing to do with my hard work, or the fight to get decent conditions for everyone in the Ambulance Service. Not a word about my years working on the committees to get better vehicles and equipment, or serviceable uniforms. No mention of 22 years serving the community of London in a low-paid, difficult, and often very stressful job. It all came down to one thing, a reputation based on perception.

“A real militant”.

On reflection, I don’t really mind that at all.

A re-post: Ambulance stories (1)

My first ever Ambulance Story. Just to prove that being an EMT in London is far from being a glamorous job!


The un-snippable turd

Sometimes, ambulances are called by other agencies, and not by the person in need of help. Railway staff make frequent requests for ambulances, whether in underground stations, or on the main line system. When you consider how many people are travelling on both systems on any given day in Central London, it is understandable, to some degree.

So, when we received a call on the radio to go to Paddington Station, it was not particularly unusual. We had added information, that a female was in a collapsed state in the toilets, in great pain, and unable to move. On the way to the job, with siren blaring and blue lights flashing,  we were in the habit of considering what we might be going to encounter on arrival. Using the basic information and diagnostics supplied by the caller, we could presume a whole number of things. Young female…

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Ambulance stories (9)

I am reblogging some of my old ambulance stories, for a new audience. This one from 2012 has hardly been seen since. 🙂


The fainting woman

After a very short time in the Ambulance Service, you soon learn to disregard the diagnoses given by Ambulance Control. They are at the mercy of the caller, and their own desire to end the call, within their protocols, as soon as possible. So, there is a constant repetition of the same diagnosis given for the call you are being asked to go to. Others can be wildly inaccurate, perhaps because of language problems, or lack of observation on the part of the caller. After a while, you do not expect what you are told, to be what you actually see on arrival.

One morning, we were returning from the Charing Cross Hospital in Hammersmith, when we were called to a well-known high-rise estate, not far from our base. We were told to meet a caller outside the entrance to one of the highest blocks, and that…

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Thinking Aloud On the Wrong Day


We were woken unusually early this morning, by someone repeatedly ringing my mobile phone. It is a standing joke that nobody ever rings it, unless they are trying to sell me something, or have the wrong number. It was an unknown caller, and they had left a voicemail message. My first thought was that it must be bad news, to call so early, so I played the message with some trepidation. It was a courier company, trying to collect a box from a Filipino lady called Marina. They needed directions to her house. So, a wrong number.

That had awakened me from a deep sleep, in the middle of an intense dream. I was back working in an ambulance in London, having a conversation with a patient I met a few times over the years. The dream was replaying a conversation I had with that man, and was like watching a video recording of us both, around 1986, as we were travelling to hospital.

We had been called to a man who lived not far from the base. We were given a diagnosis of unstable Diabetes, and told that the caller was a man in his sixties, who felt unwell with low blood sugar. The door was opened with a click by a remote button, and I walked in with my bag of equipment. I found the man dressed and standing, ready to go with us. He knew about his condition, and had already eaten a sugary sweet, hoping to hold off the problem until we got to the casualty department. As he turned, I was startled to see that he had no eyes, just short eyelids half-covering empty sockets. I had heard of this condition of being born without an eye, or eyes, but had never encountered someone it had affected. (it is called Anopthalmia, and is present in just 1 in 100,000 births.)

He put on some sunglasses, and I helped him to the ambulance. I had long been fascinated by the problems of blindness, but especially interested in people who had never seen anything. I wondered how he perceived the world, and whether it was true if other senses developed beyond the normal to compensate in any way. Having been sighted, then going blind later, is one thing. At least memory will supply some details for you to hang on to. But never having seen anything has to be a lot to deal with. As it is usual in an ambulance to discuss things not normally brought up in polite conversation, I asked him about it, and he was happy to talk about it, mainly because most people avoided the subject out of respect.

He was born in the 1920s, to a young single-parent mother. He used the old term ‘Out of wedlock’. Not only was her situation difficult, the appearance of a baby son without eyes was too much for her to cope with. She gave the baby away, and he was brought up in a home for unwanted children, later transferring to a residential facility for the blind, on the outskirts of London. He received a basic education, and was later trained in the use of Braille to read books, and use a specially adapted typewriter. During WW2, at the age of seventeen, he got a job with the Civil Service, as a clerk/typist, and stayed there until he retired, aged sixty. He told me he had never married, and never so much as kissed a girl. His pleasure in life came from reading books in Braille, and listening to the radio. He had never been to the cinema, or owned a television. I was keen to ask him about his perceptions, and also about the daily difficulties he had encountered, and still did.

Transport was an obvious issue. He had been shown how to get around his small flat, which had been provided at low rent, by the City Corporation. Also how to get to the nearest bus stop, so he could get to work. But he had no idea what number bus had arrived, and had to ask others at the stop. If there was nobody around, he would have to shout at the conductor, and ask the bus number. Back then, coins were distinctive, and banknotes issued in different sizes, so he coped alright with money. But he was annoyed that he frequently stepped in dog mess on the pavement, as he couldn’t see it. I had never thought of that. He had obviously adapted well, and as he told me “I didn’t know any different. That is how I live, because I had no option to do otherwise”.

I went on to ask about other senses. He said that his hearing was in the normal range, but his sense of smell was acute. He could recognise people by their individual smell, if he had already met them, and even tell different races, without hearing them talk. He remarked that my colleague was probably West Indian, though he obviously hadn’t seen him, and had heard few words from him. This was accurate, as my crew mate was from Barbados originally, though spoke with a London accent. He could judge someone’s height easily, from the direction of their voice, and whether or not he felt their breath on his face. I asked about if he could picture something in his mind, if it was described to him in detail. He said that the picture in his mind would be very different to what was being described, and it would be almost impossible for him to tell me what he saw in his head. He gave me an example, which I have never forgotten.

“Describe snow to me”.
I thought for a moment.
“It falls from the sky..”
He stopped me.
“I have never seen the sky”.
“Its white”.
“What’s white?”
“It has small flakes, like tiny crystals”.
“What are flakes? What are crystals?”
“It is cold”.
“I know that, because I have touched it”.
“It accumulates on the ground, looks like cotton wool”.
“What’s cotton wool?”
He held up a hand to stop the questions. He had made his point, and I understood.
“I can feel the cold, and hear the crunching underfoot. I also feel it’s slippery when I am walking. But I can never picture it in the same way as you. That’s impossible”.
I wanted to ask many more questions, but we had arrived at the hospital. I had an increased respect for blind people, and had enjoyed a fascinating conversation.

I got to meet him a few more times over the years, and the second time I walked into his flat, before I had spoken a word, he smiled and said, “You’re the man who asks the questions”.

I was dreaming about that this morning, and wanted to tell you.

Thinking Aloud On a Tuesday

Undiscovered bodies

I’m ‘Home Alone’ with Ollie this week, and woke up with a start this morning. Something was in my head, and even though it is not Sunday, I thought it was worth a ‘thinking aloud’, despite being a rather unpleasant subject.

Working in emergency ambulances, you get used to dealing with all sorts of things. But there are some things that nobody can ever get used to, and that will always stay in the minds of those who dealt with them. It is a sad fact that many people die alone, and unnoticed. I don’t mean people who die when there are none of their loved ones around at the time, or those who pass quietly during the night, in their own beds, or in hospitals. I am talking about the thousands who literally have nobody. No friends, family, work colleagues, or concerned neighbours. Often, their bodies will remain undiscovered for days, months, even years.They might be sitting on an armchair, slumped over a dining table, or perched precariously on a toilet seat. Sometimes, they are tucked up in bed, or perhaps lying on the floor in a hallway, or living room.

Modern life brought with it a lot of social changes. Doorstep delivery of milk went into decline, and less people took daily newspapers too. Neighbours became less involved in the lives of those nearby, and many single people, or widows and widowers, withdrew into a solitary lifestyle, having little contact with the world outside of their home. Companies stopped collecting rents and other payments door-to-door, and save for some enthusiastic Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, or charity collectors, you could easily spend many years with not so much as a ring on your bell, or a knock on the door.

Eventually, signs appear that something is not right. Post piling up, and sticking out of the letter box. Perhaps a bad smell, annoying the neighbours. Overgrown grass in a front garden, or unpaid bills resulting in the attendance of a debt collector. Sooner or later, someone suspects something is amiss, and rings 999. They send an ambulance, in case the person is ill, and the police too, to gain lawful entry by force. Once you have attended such calls a few times, the clues shout at at you. In the summer, the insides of the windows will be covered by fat bluebottles. Hundreds of them. When it is colder, just lifting the letter-box will reveal an unmistakable smell. A smell you will remember all your life, even though you don’t want to. If there is a frosted glass panel in the door, common in social housing in London, you will see a veritable mountain of junk mail and unopened post piled behind it.

Once entry has been gained, at least one of us has to go in, to accompany the police officer, and confirm ‘life extinct’. The police officer’s job is worse, as he will later have to examine the corpse for signs of obvious foul play, before handing over to the funeral company nominated by the Coroner. In we go, dreading the scene we know will await us. Sometimes, it is bearable, once you have covered your nose and mouth with a mask, or your arm at least. A body slumped on a floor, or still in bed. I didn’t have to even touch most of them, as death was blindingly obvious. On occasion, I was presented with the grim spectacle of a maggot-filled body, one that appeared to still be moving as a result of their activity. Occasionally, what I found was barely still resembling a human being, more like a misshapen, liquid-filled sack. And they were almost always men. It seems, at least from my experience, that single females and widows are more sociable, so easily missed. Men on their own in old age easily slip into reclusive ways, and seem content to rarely venture out.

At the time, I thought that strange. But now I am officially a man in his old age, I understand that completely.

In some of those properties, we also found the remains of a dead cat or dog. Unable to get out once their owner died, they were doomed to starve to death, or die of thirst. I always wondered why nobody ever reported hearing them bark, whine, or meow. People in London are used to noise though, and used to tolerating it. I always felt so sorry for any pets I saw like that. At least the person must have died quickly, or they would have undoubtedly summoned help, had they felt in pain, or been ill. But the poor animal had to linger, wondering why nobody came to feed it, or refill its water.

Those jobs rarely if ever involved younger people, such as drug users, or alcoholics. Their choice of lifestyle dictates that they have a group of acquaintances, albeit others looking to share their drugs or drink. People in that underclass of society tend to be discovered earlier, if only as a result of an anonymous phone call.

After handing over to the police officer, we are free to leave, and go on to the next call awaiting us. Unless the dead person was the victim of a crime that contributed to their death, we are unlikely to ever find out any more about them, or how they died. Because they are not in what is designated as a ‘Public place’, we are spared the very unpleasant job of taking the body to the local mortuary. That will be done by the on-call undertaker, using a metal box or basic transit coffin.

The reason all this came flooding back today is that I woke up wondering what would have happened had I died alone in the house during the night. Julie is not back until Friday, and our neighbours are unlikely to pry. They are used to seeing a car on the driveway, and seeing me out and about with Ollie in the afternoon. But if that car was missing, and I wasn’t out with Ollie, they might reasonably assume that I had gone off somewhere with him, perhaps to visit a relative. So it would have been Friday at the earliest, and I would have been undiscovered for four days. I like to think Ollie’s eventual barking might alert someone, but a lot of dogs bark all the time around here, and we don’t check to see if their owners have died.

Maybe we should?