Christmas In An Ambulance

As you probably know, I spent a third of my life as an EMT in Central London. Anyone who worked in that job will tell you that the two busiest days of the year are New Year’s Eve, and Christmas Day.

But why Christmas Day? The shops are closed, and most people are at home opening presents, wearing bad taste jumpers, and anticipating a day of eating, drinking, and watching TV.

For emergency ambulance crews, the day starts with the leftovers of the previous shift. Christmas Eve parties, drunken revellers who had fallen over, some in virtual comas from excessive alcohol consumption. Head injuries, cuts and bruises from fights, maybe broken ankles if the streets were icy. Calls to the Police Station to examine injured prisoners, and all this on top of the everyday medical emergencies that don’t go away just because it is the 25th of December.

Once the presents are open, there are the accidents involving children. Rushing off to try out new rollerblades, skateboards, and cycles, many have sustained injuries not long after breakfast. For some, that will mean a few hours spent in the emergency department of the local hospital, awaiting stitches and Tetanus injections. For the unlucky few, it will result in being on life support in the Intensive Care Unit; worried parents sitting by the bed.

Many people start drinking much earlier on Christmas day. Few of those would usually have alcohol just after breakfast, so by midday they are feeling the effects. As the food comes out of the oven, the calls change to burns, scalds, and deep cuts from carving knives. For those that escape kitchen accidents and settle down for the afternoon, the greater than usual consumption of food becomes the problem.

Wind can be incredibly painful. Though it is not life-threatening, to a family the worse for drink and stress, that sharp pain may be indicative of something more sinister, like a blocked bowel, or perhaps a heart attack. So they call 999, and then get stressed out even more by having to wait longer than usual because we are so busy. For some unfortunates, the combination of alcohol, stress, and over-eating does actually cause a heart attack. Also Diabetic Coma, exacerbation of existing breathing problems like Asthma, or the rupture of an Aortic Aneurysm.

By early afternoon, it is not unusual to be trying to resuscitate people who have literally dropped dead in front of the Christmas Tree. This is usually going on in front of a number of distraught family members, some still holding unopened presents.

The early evening brings its own problems. Calls to people who cannot be roused because they have had so much to drink. Babies and small children put down to rest, then found in situations of medical emergency, like high temperatures or even cot death. Following those dramas, people start to leave for home. This now involves car accidents where the drivers are over the limit from ‘just a couple of drinks’. Their relative insisted they have something before they leave, and that might have been a whole tumbler full of brandy, on top of that ‘couple of glasses’ with dinner. They might be unfamiliar with the area, go the wrong way up a one-way street, or not notice that person who was walking over a pedestrian crossing.

In some cases, the victims are also drunk; sometimes wandering around in the hope of finding a shop open, or deciding to cycle home after having been drinking all day.

For most of you this year, it will be a happy and trouble free day. But when you hear a siren in the distance, or see the blue lights of an ambulance pass your window, now you will now why.

Ambulance memories: Disasters

During my time as an EMT in London, I attended the scene of a few significant major incidents. Some were accidents, others related to terrorism. Whatever the cause, you might well consider them to be disasters. These are my recollections of some of those.

1981. Oxford Street London. The Wimpy Bar bombing.
Mandatory Credit: Photo by ANL/Shutterstock (1445884a)
Devastation After An IRA Bomb Exploded In A Wimpy Bar On Oxford Street Killing Kenneth Haworth The Metropolitan Police Explosives Officer Attempting To Defuse It.<

Following a warning from the IRA, a civilian bomb disposal officer attempted to defuse a bomb planted in a burger bar. It detonated as he worked on it, killing him instantly. I was in an ambulance at the end of the shopping street, and we heard the sound of the explosion, and saw the smoke rising. We were not required to go to the incident, as he was beyond medical help.
I later wrote a blog post about that brave man.

1982. Hyde Park, London. Household Cavalry bombings.

The IRA detonated two bombs that day. One in Hyde Park, the other in Regent’s Park. The targets of those attacks were soldiers of the Household Cavalry, returning to barracks after ceremonial duties, and bandsmen of The Royal Green Jackets. I was in an ambulance sent to the Hyde Park incident. Four soldiers were killed in Hyde park, as well as seven of the Blues and Royals cavalry horses. As it was a terrorist incident, it was treated as a crime scene, and I did not have to treat anyone on scene.

1983. Harrods Store Bombing, London.

The famous London department store was hit by an IRA bomb in December of that year. I was sent in an ambulance to standby if needed. I was very worried, as I knew that my wife had gone to the shop that afternoon, accompanied by a friend from Paris who wanted to buy some Christmas presents. Luckily, they were still in the tube station opposite at the time the bomb went off, so they were unharmed. We were not required to do that much more, as there were many ambulances available. Six people were killed, including three police officers. Another ninety people were injured, some seriously. The high casualty rate was caused by the failure to evacuate the store when the bomb warning was received. My only part in that job was to confirm to a police officer that I could not render any help to one of the victims, a man who had been blown in two by the blast.

1999. The Ladbroke Grove Train Crash.

With my colleague, I was in the first ambulance on scene at what is still one of the worst transport disasters in British history. We were there for most of the day, dealing with numerous casualties, victims of severe burns, and attempts to identify body parts. Thirty-one people were killed, and two hundred and sixty seriously injured. It was the most serious job I ever attended, in almost twenty-two years. I later wrote this blog post about that terrible day. Perhaps the worst day of my entire career.

Just a snapshot of what we called major incidents. There were many more in London, but those stick in my mind.

Ambulance stories (18)

A rather sombre post from 2012, about my time as an EMT in London, with particular emphasis on dealing with death. Only one of you has left a comment in the past, and it has hardly ever been read. Given the content, I suppose that is understandable.


Living with the dead

This is not an anecdote about a specific job, like the other posts in this series. It is rather a reflection on death, and on dealing with it in the role of an ambulanceman. It is not meant to be depressing, though it may read that way. It is part of my reflection on those years, as I get older.

Before I joined the London Ambulance Service, I had seen one dead body. When I was young, my maternal grandfather died. He was only 65, and died suddenly. I was taken to see him in his coffin, which was in my grandparents’ front room, for a vigil before the funeral. My enduring memory of that night, was not of my first dead body, but of my uncle crying. My grand-dad just looked as if he was asleep, and I did not find it distressing.

Decades years…

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Ambulance stories (4)

Another old post from 2012, about my time in London as an EMT. No horrors this time, just an example of how people could often abuse the emergency services. I think only Wilma has seen this one before.


The broken lift

One evening shift, we were called to a nearby housing estate, known for its high-rise blocks. There was a female ‘Angina Patient’, who was in the reception area of one of these blocks, and she had asked for an ambulance to attend. Angina, for those who do not know, is a narrowing of the arteries around the heart, and is potentially life-threatening. Controlled by drugs, this condition can be exacerbated by stress, undue exercise, and other factors. It presents as a sharp pain in the chest, and can be relieved by the administration of a drug, called in abbreviation, GTN. This is in the form of a spray, and will temporarily dilate blood vessels, potentially relieving the pain. So, a call to someone with this condition can be considered serious.

On arrival, we were met by a well-dressed, presentable lady, who appeared to be about 60 years…

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Ambulance stories (20)

There was mention of tattoos in a recent post, and that reminded me of this Ambulance Story, from 2012. A couple of you will remember it, but most readers have never seen it.


The expansive tattoo

People may be forgiven for believing that having tattoos is a fairly recent thing. It seems that all young people have at least one these days, and most pop stars, and famous actors, are covered in them, to different degrees. This is not the case of course; they have been around for thousands of years.

One afternoon, we were called to a local old peoples’ home, to transport an elderly lady into hospital. She was suffering with arthritis, and needed to go for x-rays, and possible admission, due to her general lack of mobility. On arrival, we were shown to her room, where we met a very friendly and chatty old lady, with an outgoing personality, and a ready wit. We were handed a doctor’s letter, and helped her from her bed, onto our ambulance trolley, making her as comfortable as possible, in the circumstances. Once in…

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Ambulance stories (10)

A more amusing tale from my EMT days, hopefully providing some light relief. I don’t think any of you have ever seen this one. 🙂


The enormous tit

One of the much-publicised advances in Ambulance equipment, was the advent of the Cardiac Monitor, and combined de-fibrillator. Although this two-lead machine did not give a full ECG readout, it did give some indication of heart rhythm. As a result, it became protocol to attach these leads to any patient with chest pains, or with a known heart condition. This would be done when the patient was settled in the vehicle, and before moving off, as the movement of the vehicle could cause inaccurate readings. One lead was stuck to the upper right side of the chest, and the other lower down, on the left side. In the case of a female patient, this would mean that there was a need to put this just under the left breast.

One of the first things that you are taught in training, is the maxim ‘No sex in first…

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Ambulance stories (3)

Another from the 2012 archives. A sad story about a lovely lady, and a very unpleasant job.


Betty’s toes

When you work in a particular area for some time, you soon get used to the ‘regulars’. These are patients with chronic illness or disease, drug users, alcoholics, asthmatics, diabetics, and housebound people requiring different kinds of help and assistance. Betty was in this category. She was in her 70’s, and she had Diabetes, as well as circulation problems and arterial disease,  caused by decades of heavy smoking. She may have been a widower, or divorced, as she lived alone, in a small terraced house, not too far from our base.

It was common to receive calls to attend her address, either emergency calls made by Betty, or as an arranged admission by her G.P. She was a cheery character, and seemed to manage well, despite constant pain in her legs and feet. When this got too bad, or life got on top of her, she would either…

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Thinking Aloud On a Sunday

Unusually for me, I didn’t wake up thinking about anything in particular today, so I wasn’t going to bother with one of these regular posts.

However, when out walking with Ollie later, something popped into my mind unexpectedly, and took me back thirty-six years, to a strange encounter.
So, better late than never, here is what I have been thinking about on this particularly dull and dismal Sunday.


One afternoon when I was working as an EMT, we were called to a lady complaining of stomach pains and dizziness. Her address was very close to our base, only a few hundred yards away in fact. We arrived very quickly, and were met at the door by an attractive and smart older lady, with a pleasant manner. At first, I didn’t realise it was her that had called for the ambulance, thinking she was helping out someone who was ill. But she soon made it clear that it was for her, so I began the usual round of questions about symptoms, medical history, and so on. She was adamant that her stomach was hurting, so we did some basic tests, and could find nothing obviously wrong.

I offered to call out her family doctor, or to convey her to the emergency department of the nearby hospital. She opted to go to hospital, and during the short journey, managed to tell me a great deal about herself. She was 64 years old, and had just moved to the area after the death of her much older husband. She claimed to often feel dizzy, and that pains in her stomach had developed that morning. She also revealed that she had been very lonely since moving, and sometimes felt depressed.

I handed her over to the hospital staff, and left for the next job. My colleague wryly suggested that she had ‘lonely person syndrome’, and that was the last we thought of it.

We were on duty until 11 pm that evening, and remained fairly busy for the rest of the shift. Around ten, we received a call on the radio to return to the lady’s address. She had been discharged from hospital, and had called to say that we had left some equipment behind earlier. On the way back to base, we stopped outside, even though we were both sure that we had left nothing in her flat. My colleague stayed in the driving seat, and I went up and rang the bell. She answered the door, immediately asking me to come inside. Once in there, I could see that she was dressed very differently. She was wearing a low-cut blouse, a much shorter skirt, and had a lot of make-up on. I suppose a description might be ‘inappropriate’, though I wouldn’t presume to suggest what a lady should wear in her own home, or anywhere else for that matter.

She smiled at me and told me that we had left nothing behind, and she had used that as an excuse to make sure the same men returned to her address. She launched into a well-prepared speech about how she had really taken to me, and wondered if I would like to go round after work, “for a drink”. Her smiles and inferences suggested a lot more than drinks were on the menu. Now I am not remotely ‘ageist’, and as memory serves, she was a desirable lady in every respect. But at the time I was 30 years old, and Veronica was six years older than my own mother. I had also been happily married for five years, and had no intention of cheating on my wife. I thanked her for the invitation, and told her that I was very flattered, but married, and not interested in a ‘fling’. She leaned forward and tried to kiss me, but when I shied away and made my farewells, she smiled and said “Oh well, your loss”.

After that, she began to ring ambulances all the time, almost every day. As the odds were that she would rarely get me turning up, she started to ask other crews about me, going so far as to tell them that I was her ‘boyfriend’. She had asked my first name when I took her to hospital, so with that, and a physical description, she was able to make it clear who she was talking about. Then one morning, we got a call to her house, once again alleging dizzy spells. I spoke to her calmly but firmly, requesting that she stop calling ambulances in the hope of seeing me, and on no account was she to tell others that I was her boyfriend. When she declined to go to hospital, we left her flat.

Within days, she was putting letters through the door of the ambulance station. Her words were lurid, describing all sorts of sexual ideas she wanted to try with me. I decided to go to my Area Officer, and make him aware of what was going on. As was often the case, he presumed that I had taken up her offer that first night, and took some convincing that I hadn’t. He even suggested that I should accommodate her, smiling and adding, “It might calm her down”. Once he was told that wasn’t going to happen, he finally told me that I couldn’t refuse to attend her address, especially if I was in the nearest available ambulance. With a shrug, he concluded, “You will just have to put up with it. Consider it flattering, I would”. Not only did her letters continue, each one more explicit than the last, she took to standing on the corner opposite the ambulance station, hoping to see me. Other crews reported seeing her there for hours at times, and when I was on a two-week summer holiday, she rang the bell of the ambulance station and asked the crew that answered where I was.

For almost a year, the luck of the draw was on my side, and I never got one of the many calls she made to the emergency operator. Others did, and became frustrated and annoyed about her wasting time, when all she did when they arrived was to ask about me, then refuse to go with them to hospital. On one Saturday night, she made fourteen calls in under five hours, with an ambulance attending at least ten of those. And I wasn’t even on duty that night.

Eventually, she became classified as a ‘Persistent Nuisance Caller’, with the result that she could be refused the attendance of an ambulance. A Divisional Officer was sent round to talk to her about that, and she spent the whole conversation telling him that I was her boyfriend, and we were lovers. When he inferred that her allegations might result in me losing my job due to ‘Abuse of position’, she just said “If he loses his job, tell him he can come and live with me”. Reports were sent to Social Services, and I learned that she was later referred to the Mental Health Team. As far as I know, she stopped calling ambulances, and I never saw her again.

It wasn’t long before I had forgotten all about her.
Until today, when her face and voice popped into my mind, whilst out walking my dog.

If Veronica is still alive somewhere, she will now be 100 years old.
I hope that she found the happiness she was seeking.

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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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.