Nice Times (2)

After my first post in what looks like becoming a short series, I felt really happy for a long time after posting it.

Nice Times

So I decided to do another one.

A holiday to the Soviet Union, in the late 1970s. I had always wanted to go there, and to see it how I imagined it, in the snow. We went in February, and I hadn’t realised that they did a good job of clearing away the snow as soon as it has accumulated. But I stood in front of the gates of The Winter Palace in Leningrad, and didn’t care at all that it was -25 degrees.

My first full day with Ollie as a pup. He was too young to go out yet, and his wrinkled skin looked like a baby wearing adult clothes. Julie was working full-time then, so I was up and about early, to play with our new pup. He followed me everywhere, and was ready to play any time I sat down on the floor with him. His little teeth were like needles, and he loved to chew my fingers and the sides of my hands. Then he would collapse, tired from play, and I watched him sleep until the next time.

Telling an old lady that nothing could be done for her husband, who she had found collapsed in the bathroom that morning. I said we would put him into some pyjamas and get him back into bed, so he looked peaceful when her son and daughter-in-law arrived to see him. After that, I made her a cup of tea, and waited until the police arrived to report it as a sudden death. She hugged me with her bony little arms, and said that I had made everything so much better for her. At times like that, I knew why I had joined the Ambulance Service.

Sitting on a bench by the river at Beetley Meadows. Ollie is standing in the water to cool down, and I am watching huge dragonflies flying around close to the water. I looked up at the blue sky, listened to the sound of the river flowing, and knew I had made the right decision to move away from London.

The first time someone other than a friend or relative commented on one of my blog posts, in 2012. I had to approve the comment, and was excited to reply. I sat back on my old stool, (later replaced by a proper office chair) and felt like a ‘real’ blogger.

Ambulance life

Reblogging a 2012 post that nobody (except A) has seen. It is about my early days as an EMT in London. It is all very different now of course.

beetleypete

For those who read my posts on a regular basis, you may see a pattern appearing in my ‘Ambulance Stories’ category. That pattern is that many of the calls we were sent to, differ greatly from the description given to us by Ambulance Control. This may seem fanciful and affected to the outsider, though I can assure you that all these stories are 100% accurate. Perhaps some explanation of general life as an Ambulanceman in London (at least when I was still in it ) will put some of this into better context.

At the time I joined, the London Ambulance Service was a very different organisation to the one it is today. It was short-staffed, under-funded, and the staff were poorly paid, and did the job with very little equipment. Many of the operational managers were ex-military types, and the uniform reflected this, in being totally unsuitable for the…

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Ambulance stories (19)

Another post from 2012, reflecting on my time as an EMT in London. I don’t think any of you have ever seen this one.

beetleypete

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…

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Ambulance Stories (47)

PTSD

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a subject much in the news these days. It can affect anyone, in a variety of situations; from a soldier returning from a combat zone, to someone who witnessed a bad traffic accident. I found this recent definition of the condition on the NHS website.

The type of events that can cause PTSD include:
serious road accidents
violent personal assaults, such as sexual assault, mugging or robbery
prolonged sexual abuse, violence or severe neglect
witnessing violent deaths
military combat
being held hostage
terrorist attacks
natural disasters, such as severe floods, earthquakes or tsunamis
PTSD can develop immediately after someone experiences a disturbing event or it can occur weeks, months or even years later.
PTSD is estimated to affect about 1 in every 3 people who have a traumatic experience, but it’s not clear exactly why some people develop the condition and others don’t.’

You notice that there is nothing in that list specifically about working for the Emergency Services. I suppose that if you choose to embark on a career in the Ambulance Service, or the Fire Service, and The Police, you should anticipate the likelihood of having to deal with a lot of unpleasant things, and that you will be witnessing things that others never see. The same applies to those who choose a career in the Armed Forces, but they are on the list, given the extreme nature of their role I presume. It would appear that being the victim of something, rather than just witnessing it, or dealing with the outcome as part of your job, is the defining factor here. So how does this manifest itself, what are the tell-tale signs? This is again from the NHS website.

Signs and symptoms
‘Someone with PTSD will often relive the traumatic event through nightmares and flashbacks, and may experience feelings of isolation, irritability and guilt.
They may also have problems sleeping, such as insomnia, and find concentrating difficult.
These symptoms are often severe and persistent enough to have a significant impact on the person’s day-to-day life.’

For more than twenty years, I witnessed all sorts of unspeakable things working on an Ambulance in Central London. Countless dead bodies, attempted resuscitation of people of all ages, including babies. Finding corpses that had been neglected and were decaying, traumatic limb amputations, decapitations, murders, sexual assaults, and violent crimes. Sufferers of terminal illnesses, people who had jumped from a great height to their deaths, or under trains, or sometimes into water. Suicide by drug overdose, death from drug addiction, victims of shootings and stabbings, others seriously injured in road accidents. I saw them all, and dealt with them accordingly. There was a lighter side. Delivering babies, chatting to interesting elderly people, the banter with colleagues and hospital staff. But generally, it was mostly unpleasant, and often downright nasty.

We were threatened and attacked too. I was physically assaulted a few times, and verbally abused daily. I have been threatened with violence, had knives waved at me, and on two occasions, even a gun was brandished. We were fair game, and enjoyed little respect. Writing the stories about my experiences on this blog has brought back many recollections of my time there; and as memories, they are mostly good ones, surprisingly. When you are dealing with the victims of terrorist bombings for example, you don’t really have time to think about stress, or trauma to the mind. You just do the job you signed up for, and move on to the next one. The day after that, you turn up for work, and deal with whatever is thrown at you, starting all over again, from scratch.

I did my last shift in an Ambulance in November 2001, before moving on to pastures new, as a Communications Officer with the Metropolitan Police. I can honestly say that I didn’t miss the job at all, just some of the people. I joined at the right time for me, and left when it no longer felt right. Since retiring in 2012, I often have vivid dreams. About 70% of those dreams happen to be related to working in an ambulance. Two nights ago, I woke from one such dream at around 3AM. I had been driving an ambulance, and I had got lost, unable to find the location of the job I was required to go to. Rather than being in London, I was on the coast somewhere, driving near the edge of a cliff. The person beside me was unfamiliar, not one of my old crew-mates at all. This is a recurring dream, though often the person with me is someone I know well, or a person that I could never have known at the time, but have met since. They are not unpleasant dreams, but they usually concern lots of driving, and getting nowhere fast. Perhaps someone skilled in interpretation of dreams can explain them, I know that I cannot.

I suppose I always suspected that PTSD might be the legacy of a third of my life spent attending 999 calls. But it wasn’t. I didn’t get it, though some others surely did. I was one of the lucky ones.

Ambulance Stories (46)

Clean up after your dog

As a responsible dog owner, I always clean up after my dog. There are plenty of dog-poo bins in areas where dog-walking is popular, so no excuse to leave anything unhygienic around. It may not be one of the best things about owning a dog, but it just has to be done. Sadly, in many parts of London, there is little evidence that the dog owners of that city follow suit. This story is as much about the bystander involved, as the victim. It is not a pleasant tale, but then many aspects of life and death are far from pleasant.

One morning, we were called to a main road nearby. The job was given as, ‘man fallen, not moving.’ At the end of the rush hour, Holland Park Avenue in west London is still a busy thoroughfare. You will encounter heavy traffic, late commuters still hurrying to the underground station, and morning shoppers waiting for shops to open. When we arrived on scene, we were met by a middle-aged lady. In that area, eccentric people are common, so her appearance was not that unusual. She was dressed in a style that you might describe as ‘retro-sixties’, except that her hippy clothing was almost certainly original. She was short, and overweight, and despite the cold morning, large hairy toes protruded from the sandals she wore. She carried a substantial handbag, and I could see the head of a cat sticking out from one end. The zip was fastened sufficiently far along to prevent the feline escaping, though it was obvious from its wriggling, that this was just what the unfortunate animal was attempting to do. In looks, she resembled the genetically-engineered outcome of a cross between Catweazle, and Miriam Margolyes. (See links)

She told us that she had been waiting for the nearby grocery shop to open, so that she could buy some milk. A well-dressed man had been walking towards her, heading in the direction of the underground station. She related how he had suddenly stopped still, and had then fallen straight down, with no attempt to break his fall. She said that it was, “as if an unseen cable had suddenly pulled him forwards, into the pavement.” I thought this was a very good description of someone collapsing after they were already dead; possibly from a brain haemorrhage, or something similar, giving them no time to contemplate their demise. My colleague walked over to the prone figure of a tall man. His head was covered by a plastic carrier bag, draped across the rear of his neck. The lady offered an explanation. “I did that, it’s not very nice under there, poor man.” My partner recoiled as he removed the bag. All around the dead man’s face was a foul substance, giving off a terrible smell. The lady nodded. “I told you, it’s dog shit,” she loudly exclaimed.

We got the man into the vehicle. He appeared to be in his sixties, and was dressed in smart business clothes. We tried as best as we could to carry out our normal resuscitation procedures. This meant cleaning the excrement from his mouth and nose, before using suction to remove what we could not get out from the inside of those orifices. He was obviously ‘well-dead’, a phrase we used often; but as he was in a public place, and the incident was not that old, we were naturally compelled to try as hard as possible to revive him. Continuing with all of our usual protocols, we took him off to the nearby casualty department, alerting them of our arrival. Despite the presence of the dog muck all over his head, hospital staff continued the attempt at resuscitation for some time, but could get no output. Without the benefit of knowing the results of a post-mortem, we could only conclude that something had killed him instantly, as he walked briskly to the station. He had been doubly unfortunate, as he had fallen face first into a very large pile of dog poo, left on that street by an inconsiderate dog owner. We threw away much of the equipment used, in case of any infection, and had to spend ages deep-cleaning the larger items, before returning to disinfect the whole vehicle on the inside. Dog waste can carry a disease called Toxocariasis, and this can cause blindness, particularly in children.

I often think of this poor man. Not only did he die in public, he died with a lack of dignity, caused by a thoughtless individual, who could have cleaned this up in a moment. At least the strange lady tried to spare him some of that.

https://www.google.co.uk/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=miriam%20margolyes
https://www.google.co.uk/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=catweazle
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toxocariasis

Ambulance Strife: Then and Now

You only have to turn on the news, or read a paper, especially regional news and press, to see the latest horror story about your Ambulance Service. Whatever part of Britain you live in, city or countryside, there is a good chance that someone will have been badly affected by the failure of their local Ambulance Service to provide them with the proper care. You must have seen some of the more high-profile cases. Ambulances that went to the wrong location, others who did not know their way to the correct hospital, and many more that arrive ridiculously late, or not at all, often resulting in tragedy. This is regularly blamed on the crews; their lack of knowledge, poor judgement or diagnosis, or issues surrounding training. Some reports rightly delve deeper, looking at the culture of cost-cutting, the lack of funding, and the unworkable size of most Ambulance Trusts.

Is this something new? Well, given my experience, I would have to say no. When I joined the LAS, in 1980, It had fairly recently become part of the NHS, as it was previously administered by the LCC/GLC. It is arguable that the transfer to the NHS brought with it increased proposals regarding medical care, and better development of the role, in the short term. For the Unions and staff however, it was a difficult transition from municipal employment, to a job in the Health Service.  With a history of Union militancy, and taking a firm stand in negotiations, it was hardly suitable conditions, for a transfer to a job within a so-called caring profession, where staff were traditionally not militant, and if anything, compliant. The closed shop system was retained, so to join the job, you had to join one of the five Trade Unions involved in representation. For me, this was more than acceptable, as I was convinced that a closed shop system was the answer to correct working conditions, and pay negotiation.

We had a management that had come from Local Government or The Civil Service, and was essentially bureaucratic, without the Health Care ethos. They were predominantly ex-military or Civil Defence, old guard, and proud of it. They wanted to run the service on military lines, with outdated uniforms, saluting, caps, and pay parades. They literally had no idea what constituted a modern Ambulance Service, and did not want to know, if it contradicted their ‘vision’. Pay was low, conditions basic, and as employment was still fluid, there was always someone else, waiting to step into your job. The situation was ripe for confrontation, and that is exactly what they got.

Stopping there for now, I will agree that much of the operational practice was sound. We used terms like ‘swoop and scoop’, and later, ‘the golden hour’. Our training was based on the minimum requirements to maintain life support, prior to a rapid removal to the nearest casualty department. In London at least, there were then so many hospitals, that removal to an A&E Department usually involved a matter of minutes. The emphasis was not on what we did on scene, but on stabilisation, and rapid removal to the proper environment. That is something now discredited, and in my opinion, wrongly so. Too much reliance is placed on the ability of paramedics and ambulance staff to treat patients on scene, and not enough on getting them to a place where proper facilities may aid their recovery, in the long-term. Being on one side of this argument, or the other, defines your faith and belief in the system, as it exists at any given time.

In the later years of my service, I saw this policy swing around completely. The idea was to treat on scene, not to remove where possible, and to involve family doctors, and other agencies, considering all options, before actually going to hospital. Paramedic response units, cycles, motorbikes, anything that could be utilised, all with the primary intention of not taking the person into the nearest hospital for assessment, for treatment by doctors, and other qualified staff. This was a slippery slope, and one that should have been avoided. The legacy of this policy is with us now; with bad decisions, crews under pressure, and response units waiting for interminable times, for a crew to actually remove the patient to hospital. Despite the advances in training, and the increased role of the Paramedic Practitioner, whether they like to admit it, or not, (and they don’t)  genuine patients belong in hospital; not in their own homes, or trapped in a car at the roadside, waiting for someone to make a decision that can affect their whole future. The change in role has been disastrous for the public, and the evidence is plain, for all who actually want to see it.

That aside, let us consider the political ramifications of these changes. Once Ambulance services became Trusts, they felt invulnerable. They were masters of their own destinies, and finances, and felt confident in taking on the Unions, and changing staff conditions. It all went to their heads. They got rid of the ‘old guard’ managers, and employed new whizz-kids. They had a different vision, one of fast response units, crews being flexible with attitude to working conditions, and a mission to erode traditional payments for working unsocial hours, and not having meal breaks. Despite the debilitating National Ambulance Strike, of 1989-1990 ( which I cannot possibly cover on this post) no lessons had been learned, and the management came at staff head on, ready for confrontation. Of course, we had essentially ‘lost’ that strike, so we were considered ripe for exploitation.  And to a large extent, we were.

The staff had changed considerably since the strike. Many of the experienced people had gone, disillusioned by the dispute, and the future plans of their employers. Their replacements were younger, a generation inspired by unrealistic TV shows, like ‘Casualty’, and ‘Holby City’, believing the job to be something it plainly was not. This led to a divide within the operational staff, between the new and old members, and one which was apparent to anyone who cared to look. At the same time, management began to chip away at existing agreements, and working conditions. They changed the annual leave agreement, the sickness policy, and the unsocial payments. Despite aggressive moves from the Unions, the staff failed to vote in sufficient numbers, to retain the status quo. Alongside this, our traditional allies, the Nurses, and the Fire Brigade, were undergoing similar changes. Educational requirements for all three jobs were changing fast, and new entrants often had degrees, or equivalent professional qualifications. Society as a whole was changing, and our staff along with it. The closed shop was abolished, so new staff rarely bothered to join a Union, ignorant of the fight for conditions over the centuries. By the time I was approaching my 50th birthday, I was considered outdated and regressive by my peers, and I knew that it was time to go. By then, response units were in widespread use, as were motorbikes. We could already see, at least those who cared, that the outcome for patients was altering dangerously. Added to this, the high profile helicopter service was well-used, contrarily depriving people of the chance to be moved to hospital quickly. ( At least in London) It was all going badly wrong, and this time, with the support of most of the staff.

I left in late 2001, feeling like I had left behind a part of myself. After twenty years as a shop steward, deputy convenor, and unashamed political activist in the service, it was no longer the Ambulance Service that I knew, or felt wanted in. Nothing could persuade me that I was wrong, and that they were right.

Twelve years later, and I feel vindicated. Every Ambulance Service, in all parts of the UK, is under pressure; under-performing, vilified by the media, and letting down its staff and patients. Take the East of England Ambulance trust. This is covering an area of unbelievable size. From Watford, to Great Yarmouth, to Southend, and everything in between,; including  Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, and parts of Buckinghamshire. This is an incredibly large area, unmanageable in reality, yet run as one service, with one aim, and one pool of staff. And it doesn’t work, at any level. It fails all its targets, lets down both staff and patients, and attempts to do the impossible, on a daily basis. But it does not admit defeat. Rather, it blames staff, vehicle breakdowns, and unacceptable patient demand, for all its shortcomings. Anyone is to blame, as long as it is not the intransigent management, unable, and unwilling, to admit that it is all beyond their capabilities. They keep deploying ever more fast response units, basic-trained first responders, de-fibrillators in railway stations, anything to avoid the issue that they are not giving a service to a deserving public. When all excuses fail, they blame the public for having the temerity to call ambulances in the first place, and put out documentaries featuring the worst excesses of public drinking, and drug abuse. As if that is some excuse for not attending a genuine heart attack, or epileptic seizure.

If I was still serving in the Ambulance service, I would be ashamed. Ashamed to work for such managers, ashamed to work with colleagues who firmly believe that the public do not deserve ambulances, and ashamed to be part of a system that refuses to address the shortcomings that are apparent to all. I am glad that I left, and that should tell you something. Something not good.

Ambulance stories (17)

The leg on a buffer

There is little in life that can prepare you for having to carry a severed head. No amount of training or experience can make you ready for that moment when you have to throw a blanket over the detached item, and actually pick it up.

I had not been on front line duties very long, when we received a call to go to Paddington Station. An Inter-City train had arrived at this large London terminus, and the driver had discovered the remains of a human leg, wrapped tightly around the buffer at the front of the engine. As we were making our way, it was decided to divert us to another station, where it was possible that we might find more substantial parts of whoever had come into contact with this high-speed train, as it sped into London from the West Country.

We went to Kilburn Bridge, where the train had passed through. Railway staff led us off the platform, and along the tracks. It was early, about 8am, and very cold. It was also the busiest time for the daily commute into the capital, so the trains were allowed to keep running. We wore high visibility over-jackets, and railway staff also had warning flags. It was still rather disconcerting, as trains were approaching in both directions, and we often had to walk in the small gap between them. After walking for a long time, in the direction of Paddington, we could find no trace of anything. We then had to trudge back, and return to the ambulance to report. In those days, there were no personal radios, so our only contact was through the radio in the vehicle.

Ambulance Control advised us to attend Queens Park station, a few miles further west. Staff there had reported seeing what looked like blood, on the tracks. On arrival, station staff confirmed this, and told us that they believed there would be remains on the tracks as well, in the area out of sight of public view. This necessitated stopping the trains both ways, and there was a short delay, as this was arranged. We prepared our equipment. The trolley bed, which empty weighed almost seven stones, an assortment of blankets, carry sheets, and an old-fashioned Furley Stretcher, unchanged since the First World war. We also had to take our life-saving equipment, as well as oxygen, on the offchance that we would find someone badly injured, but still alive. We carried all this down the flights of steps into the station, and when it was confirmed that the trains had been halted, we walked off the end of the platform, once again heading east, towards the train’s destination.

We were unable to wheel the trolley bed, due to the railway sleepers, and the large stones laid between; so everything had to be carried, a very arduous prospect. After almost a mile, we were getting pretty tired. Despite the cold weather, we were hot and uncomfortable in our safety jackets, and full uniform. I then saw, what was unmistakably, a human hand, lying between the tracks. A few yards further on, there was a badly damaged torso, with the remains of a leg still attached. After further investigation, we discovered some fingers, part of an arm, and most of a left foot. All of these pieces were marked for later collection, and we continued our search. Around a small bend, I saw a chilling sight. The severed head of a man, propped on a sleeper between the tracks, his badly damaged face looking towards us. It was low enough to have escaped further contact with the many trains that had passed over it.

We could now estimate that we had most of the parts that constituted a complete man, save the right leg, which was still around the train buffer in Paddington. Using plastic sacks, sheets, and blankets, we collected the pieces from the tracks, and placed them on the trolley bed, using the old-style stretcher as a base, as it could be washed later. I then had to go and recover the head, which was resting forlornly on the cold ground. I held a blanket, bullfighter-style in front of me, and draped it over the vacant face. I then picked up the bundle, which was surprisingly heavy, and walked back, placing it onto the stretcher with the other bits. All that was left, was to carry the whole thing back along to Queen’s Park station, and take the body to the local hospital, for official certification of death by a doctor.

The British Transport Police investigated the incident, and we later found out what had happened. The victim was an alcoholic vagrant. He had been sitting drinking with friends, on a wall that backed onto the railway. After one too many bottles of cider, he had fallen backwards off the wall, into the path of the train. His friends hadn’t bothered to report this to anyone, as they should not have been on Railway property. As a result of his unfortunate death, I had been presented with my first experience of this type of job, and of carrying a head for the first time. I left the mortuary, thinking that if I could do this, I could do anything.

Blog mania

I have now written 88 posts on this blog. In just under four months, that is quite a lot. I have reviewed them, once again, and decided that they were all what I wanted to post at the time, and that the blog is absent of fillers, or unnecessary jottings. Statistics tell me that the Ambulance stories are by far the most popular, so I have gone back to them, as you will have seen. This has hopefully entertained my readership, but it has also jogged my memory about the many years spent in the emergency ambulances.

This has generally been a good thing. When I left the Ambulance Service, I felt that my time there had run its course, and I never once looked back, or regretted my decision to leave. Writing the stories on the blog, takes me back to the smell inside the vehicle, the black humour, and the many good things about the job, as well as the downside. It does not make me wish that I had not left, or yearn for a return to those years. It helps me to see that time as a part of my life, a very large part, that had a lot of value. So, writing this blog did that.

I still have lots of ideas, as yet unexplored, for longer, multi-part posts, concerning issues of more weight, opinions and political views, that may surprise, or even cause offence. They are still going to come one day. I make rough notes, jot down possible titles, and recall events that might make good reading, or might not. I have yet to fully expand on my original plan to portray the differences between my new life in Norfolk, and my former life in London. This has not proved to be the fertile ground that I once imagined it would be. Perhaps this is predominantly because I do not really have a new life in Norfolk as yet, outside of the day-to-day, my wanderings with Ollie, and occasional trips to Dereham. Writing the blog has made me realise this too.

The blog has also renewed old acquaintances, and made new contacts, in many different countries, though primarily in the USA. I have had some rewarding exchanges by e mail, and received excellent constructive criticism, as well as praise, along with some welcome sarcasm and banter. It is highly unlikely that this would have been the case, were I not writing this on an almost daily basis, and promoting it to friends, old and new, my family, and ex-colleagues. I cannot think of anything comparable, that would give me some sense of personal achievement, allow me to offer thoughts, recollections, and opinions, acting as a window on my past, as well as my present.

Blogging has done all this for me. So, if I am suffering from ‘Blog mania’, then I am glad. It has been good for me so far, and I can see no reason to stop.

Ambulance stories (12)

The Tramp’s leg

If someone dies in a public place, it is the responsibility of the Ambulance Service to remove the body. That is unless there are signs of foul play, crime of any kind, or a suicide note. In these cases, it becomes the job of the Police, and the Coroner. To some extent, this becomes a kind of game, between the LAS crews, and the Police in attendance. Both sides want to absolve themselves of responsibility for this onerous task, with the attendant unpleasantness, and necessary paperwork. Please bear this in mind, when contemplating this next tale.

The area between Paddington, and Notting Hill Gate, was not always one of gentrification, and desirable properties. Many of the once former residences of quality, had been long ago converted into multiple-occupancy dwellings, of small flats and studio apartments. The basement areas housed small cupboards, tunneled under the pavements beyond, that  had once served as coal bunkers, in the days before central heating. They had become used for storage, and in particular, for dustbin stores, often for up to four or five flats in the house above. We were called to one such storage area, on a very hot and sunny day, in mid-summer. A resident, about to add rubbish to his bin, could see some feet protruding from the area, and after calling out numerous times, had got no response. The Police had also been called, in the event that the feet were suspicious. The small area was dark, and very deep. There were four dustbins in there, and an indescribable, noxious odour, emanated from the place. The Policeman flashed his torch inside, highlighting the soles of some shoes, and told me that he believed the person inside to be dead. He based this on the smell, and the large amount of buzzing flies, and bluebottles that could be seen swarming around the opening. Perhaps it was his satisfied grin, or his comment of, ‘one for you boys’, that steeled my mind to the outcome, or maybe I just didn’t fancy the job. Either way, I resolved to ‘bump it’ into the hands of the Police.

As it turned out, I didn’t need a lot of help. I lit up my own torch, and crawled into the small, airless space, fighting to draw breath over the stench. I could see the legs and feet protruding from behind the bins. I could just make out the condition of the shoes and trousers, concluding that this was the garb of a tramp, or street-person. He had probably crawled in there for shelter some time before, then died of causes yet unknown. His proximity to dustbins had been the perfect environment for flies and maggots to do their work, and the air was fetid, and difficult to describe to anyone who has not experienced it. The Policeman was sure that he had seen the man move. I advised him that this was simply the movement of a multitude of maggots inside the body, and that there was little chance of any recovery. However, he was unconvinced, and suggested that we should at least get a look at the body. I knew that I could argue the point no further, and seized one of the outstretched feet, to pull the body into the daylight.

The sound that followed can best be described as a squelch. After an additional tug, I found myself holding a worn-out shoe, with around 12 inches of rotten leg attached. It was so decomposed, it had slipped of the bone, still in the shoe, flopping onto the concrete like an obscene wet glove. The Police Officer fought off a gag, and said that we would have to remove the body, and take it to the nearest Coroner’s Office. As you may by now well imagine, this was a sickening prospect. The torso was undulating with maggots, and a ‘clean’ removal was unimaginable. I asked the Officer if he was sure that the man had not died as a result of murder, as we could hardly ascertain injury, or cause of death, in these circumstances. For all we knew, he may have been strangled, suffocated, or stabbed, prior to being secreted in this secluded area.

As the downcast PC reached for his radio, I knew that we had ‘won’. I had sown the seed in his mind, and he just couldn’t take the chance. The scene would have to be sealed and secured, CID informed, and the body searched, as well as examined for marks, and possible injuries. We would be relegated to the role of witnesses, and would willingly give statements, at a later date. We would attend Coroner’s Court, if deemed necessary, and co-operate fully.

We would not be crawling into that hole to remove the body though. Not that day.

Ambulance stories (8)

Experience not necessary

This is another example of how experience does not always guarantee good performance, and how the wisdom of age can be cast aside by events.

One evening, I was working with the oldest, and most experienced man on our Ambulance Station. I was almost 40 years old, and he was over 50. Between us, we had some 38 years of experience in the job. Towards the end of the shift, which had been very busy, we were called to a traffic accident. It was described as a ‘hit and run’, a pedestrian had been knocked down, and the car responsible had left the scene. We had some way to travel to this job, and on route, we were updated on the radio; the situation was believed serious, Police on scene had advised us.

On arrival, things did indeed look serious. A man in his 30’s was lying across the road, which had been partially closed by Traffic Police. On examination, it appeared that the man was semi-conscious, smelt strongly of alcohol, and had a visible wound to his head. His shirt was wet around the abdomen, despite dry conditions, so my colleague removed it, to better examine the male. We immediately saw that he had organs protruding from a wound there, and soon ascertained that it was his intestines that were clearly visible. We applied a very large dressing, dampened to protect the exposed tissue, and advised the nearby hospital that we would soon be arriving with a seriously injured man.

I drove off, blue lights flashing, sirens wailing. In the back, my colleague administered oxygen, and closely monitored the patient, during the short journey to the local Casualty Department. Arriving at the hospital, we rushed him in to the Casualty, where a special Trauma Team was waiting. They quickly removed his trousers, to reveal a dislodged colostomy bag. What we had believed to be a torn abdomen, was in fact a surgical stoma, where a piece of intestine is left exposed to attach to the colostomy bag. The man was well-known to the staff there, and  he later confessed that he had been drunk, and tripped over the kerb, hitting his head, and detaching the bag attached to the stoma. There had been no car, and no traffic accident, all of that had been presumption on the part of the Police, and bystanders who had happened across him. Had we not allowed ourselves to get caught up in the drama, no doubt we would have worked this out for ourselves.

We both felt pretty stupid, and it took us a long time to live that one down.