Nice Times (4)

Continuing my happy mood with more memories that make me feel good.

Taking my mum to The Ritz Hotel in London for the classic High Tea. A birthday treat for her 80th, and something she had never done. She was thrilled by the opulent surroundings, and the quality of the food served. Then some waiters brought a tiny birthday cake to the table, with one lit candle in it. They sung Happy Birthday to her, and the others in the restaurant gave her a round of applause. The look on her face was priceless. She treasured that cake, and kept it in its little box in her fridge for the next seven years. I found it still there, when I was clearing out her fridge after she had died.

Picking Ollie up from the Animal Hospital in Newmarket. He had just had his final eye operation for Entropion, and had been kept in for three nights after. His sheer delight at seeing us arrive to collect him brought happy tears to my eyes.

Standing on a hotel balcony in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Just across the street from that hotel was the splendour of the famous Registan temple complex. I had read about Samarkand and the silk route when I was very young. Now here I was, standing opposite that history. I felt every second of that moment, deep inside.

I was part of the ambulance crew that was first on scene at the Ladbroke Grove train crash in 1999, one of the biggest rail disasters in British history. Acting as incident officer, I had to request every available ambulance in London to attend the scene. As they started to arrive, I recognised one crew, a young man and woman from Fulham Ambulance Station. I asked them to help me triage the injured that were being brought to a central point, and for one of them to set up an aid station for walking wounded in a nearby school. At the debrief over six hours later, they approached me and said, “We were so nervous about going to that job, but when we saw you were there sorting things out, we knew we would be okay”. One of the best things anyone ever said to me, in my entire life.

Sitting in a lounge chair outside our cabin at the Kilimanjaro Safari Lodge, in Kenya. I was drinking a gin and tonic before dinner, looking at the distant mountain as thousands of wildebeest crossed the horizon. My wife was inside showering and getting ready, and I sensed a movement next to me. I was amazed to see a huge male Mandrill had come and sat next to my chair. Not much smaller than me, with its distinctive coloured facial markings, and teeth as big as a wolf. I was really scared, yet fascinated. It watched me closely for a few moments before walking away. It was completely non threatening, and I felt the connection with a wild animal that meant me no harm. A simply unforgettable moment.

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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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.

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.
https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/fabricated-or-induced-illness/

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.

Going the ‘Wrong Way’

Over recent days, I have posted a few stories and photos about my time as an EMT in the London Ambulance Service. The memories of those years rarely leave me, but they do tend to resurface more poignantly at times.

One thing I often think about is how we always seemed to be going into potential danger, as hundreds of people were fleeing in the opposite direction. During the IRA bombing campaign, ambulances would naturally be sent to the scene of explosions, or to standby after bomb warnings, as bomb disposal officers tried to defuse devices. It felt rather strange to be the only people heading toward such things, as we saw hundreds of pedestrians and vehicles making their way away from the scene.

After the St Mary Axe bombing in The City of London in 1992, we were sent into the area the following day. Our job was to remain on standby, providing safety cover for Fire Crews and investigators working in the affected area. This was a long way from our base, and not a part of London we usually worked in. Arriving on scene, it was incredible to see the devastation; but the strangest thing was the complete absence of people or traffic, and the thousands of documents and pieces of paper still fluttering around.

The following year, another IRA bomb wrecked the area of Bishopsgate, also in The City of London. Once again, we were only required to standby after the event, arriving to find something resembling a war zone.

Three years later, and I was in my house in London’s Docklands, getting ready to travel into work for a night-shift. There was the hollow thump of a large explosion, and the shock wave popped the seals on all of our double-glazed windows, making the large house tremble as it did so. I went outside to see what had happened, and could see smoke rising directly across the River Thames, in the area around Canary Wharf. I got ready quickly, and left to drive into work, expecting to probably be sent to what looked like a major disaster. Fortunately, by the time I arrived at my base, we were no longer required to go there.

On the 7th of July, 2005, I was no longer in the Ambulance Service. I was working as a communications officer with the Special Operations Group of the Metropolitan Police. Following a long night shift, I slept through a series of bombings that became known as the ‘7/7 London Attacks’. Waking up in the late afternoon, I switched on the news to see the full impact of what had happened that day. Four bombs had been detonated by Radical Islamist suicide bombers. Three had been on underground trains, and one on the top deck of a London bus. 52 people had been killed, and over 700 injured, in one of the worst terrorist attacks ever seen in London.

Central London was at a standstill, with all the stations closed, and buses diverted away from the scenes of the bombings. I knew that every emergency resource would have been required, so decided to go into work early, to see if I could be of any help. As I lived close to where I worked, I was able to walk in, a journey of less than thirty minutes.The most direct route was to walk south, straight along Tottenham Court Road. in the direction of my base close to Trafalgar Square.

It didn’t take me too long to realise that I was the only person heading in that direction. Everyone else was heading north, away from potential danger
I smiled as I thought to myself, ‘You’re going the wrong way’.

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.

https://beetleypete.com/2013/11/20/ambulance-stories-43/

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.
https://beetleypete.com/2013/06/22/ambulance-stories-41/

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

My Medal


(Photo by Monster Medals)

A comment by Jennie Fitzkee on one of my ambulance posts reminded me about my medal. When you work in the Ambulance Service in the UK, which is part of the NHS, you receive a medal after twenty years of service. The following conditions must be fulfilled, to receive it.

Operational staff who reach their 20-year milestone with the Ambulance Service are awarded a Queen’s Ambulance Service (Emergency Duties) Long Service & Good Conduct Medal provided they have completed 20 years’ service, with at least seven years on A&E duties, and hold a clean disciplinary record.

During my service as an EMT, we had the long-running National Ambulance Strike, which I actively participated in. As a result, the London Ambulance Service decided to deduct the six months we were on strike from our service, meaning we had to complete more than twenty years to receive one. (I know, spiteful…) Most of us regarded the medal with some cynicism. If you stayed in the job long enough, you got one, whatever your actual operational experiences might have been.

So some staff worked flat out every day in busy areas, doing all sorts of dangerous and difficult jobs, whilst those in the outer suburbs had a comparatively easy life. But everyone got the same medal. It became known as the ‘Turning Up Medal’, as all it really signified was that you had shown up every day, for at least twenty years.

Then there were always delays in the presentations, as they had to accumulate enough eligible staff to make the cost of the occasion worthwhile. So by the time I had completed almost twenty-two years of service, I had still not received one. Then I decided to leave, and work for the Metropolitan Police. I gave up all hope of ever getting my medal, which I only really wanted so that my Mum could accompany me to the presentation ceremony.

Almost a year after I had left, I received a letter telling me that I could attend the medal ceremony, and bring two guests. However, as I was no longer employed by them, I would not be granted the benefit of wearing the dress uniform that everyone else would wear to the occasion. I wanted my elderly Mum to be able to see me get it, so I agreed to go anyway, wearing a conventional suit and tie.

The ceremony was held in the impressive Assembly Room of Church House, next to Westminster Abbey, in Central London.

Once all the recipients had been presented with their medals, we were allowed to retire to the rear balcony, where drinks and snacks were served. That place has an impressive view of the ancient Abbey. My Mum made the evening, by looking across at the most famous church in Britain, and declaring, “I’ve seen that church before”. (Failing to recognise it as Westminster Abbey) She then sipped her tea, and wrinkling up her nose, she remarked loudly, “This is as weak as water, and tastes like cat’s pee”.

But I got my medal, and Julie and my Mum were there to see it presented.

It now rests in its box, in a drawer somewhere. I have nobody to leave it to, so will probably give it to a museum one day.

Ambulance stories (12)

On a cold and wet June, I was thinking about hot summers of the past. I think only Eddy has seen this one before. Another EMT job I wish I could forget…

beetleypete

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 into the pavements beyond, that …

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Ambulance stories (11)

Another old EMT post, from 2012. Hardly anyone has seen this one, and it is not as gory as some of the others. 🙂

beetleypete

One under

As anyone who commutes around the London Underground Railway network will tell you, delays caused by someone jumping under a train, are commonplace events. In London, this network is commonly called the Tube, not the Subway, which for the edification of American readers, is a passage underneath a busy road junction. I say jumping under a train, because people rarely fall under them, though they are sometimes pushed, or hit by trains as they attempt to cross tracks.

To simplify this for the various Emergency Services, this type of call is given out as a ‘One Under’. After all, for our purposes, it is irrelevant how they got there in the first place. During one particular rush-hour morning, we received such a call, to a busy Central London Tube Station. The prospect of attending these calls requires a lot of preparation prior to descending into the depths, where…

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Ambulance stories (13)

Another old ambulance post from 2012. My first baby!

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It’s a boy!

When I did my training to become an ambulanceman, the maternity module was basic, to say the least. It consisted of a plastic pelvis and a woolen doll, with a placenta and umbilical cord (also in wool) attached. A short session of passing this through the pelvis at different angles was followed by an instructional film. This seemed to have been made in the late 1950’s, judging by the vehicles, and the clothing worn by the small cast. Using a willing female ‘star’ of a certain age, a real delivery in the back of an ambulance was filmed in glorious technicolour. It all went off well, with no complications, and ended with smiles all round.

There was some talk about breech births, cords around baby’s neck, and infant resuscitation, as well as pregnancy complications, like Pre-eclampsia, and placenta previa. This was added as information, as we were…

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