- I have tried to recreate events, locales and conversations from my memories of them. In order to maintain their anonymity and privacy I’ve changed the names of individuals and sometimes places, I may have changed some identifying characteristics, so the people described do not necessarily reflect the actual person or persons involved. Incidents and situations are as I recall.
- Swearing happens. I have used, and will use, some words that some people may find offensive.
The first time I encountered death it was a fairly quiet affair. Over the coming years I would encounter it in all its manifestations: harsh, traumatic, violent, gentle, heart-breaking – and the list goes on.
I had only been in the job for a few weeks when, one Sunday morning, whilst enjoying a few minutes of rest (which entailed sitting in the old battered chair next to the heater and finding that my eyes had mysteriously closed), the phone jolted us out of our reverie.
I struggled to wake up, which is something that has plagued me all my life, but my crew-mate moved instantly from sleep to wakefulness in a heartbeat and jumped up to answer the phone.
‘Red call, Clive. Hemel. Collapse,’ called Simon, my crew-mate.
I slipped my feet off the table and went to the vehicle, opened the bay doors and drove the motor out. Simon closed the doors and jumped in. I switched the blue lights on and off we went. Traffic on a Sunday morning was light so the normal weaving in and out, heavy braking and swearing at every motorist that just jumped on the anchors in front of us was missing; it was a smooth journey without incident. We were just entering Hemel when the radio crackled to life.
‘Update for you,’ said control. ‘Believe it’s now a cardiac arrest.’
‘Roger,’ replied Simon.
I gulped, gripped the steering wheel a little bit tighter and found a bit more speed.
‘Steady,’ advised Simon. ‘Just carry on as you were. This the first one?’ he asked kindly.
I nodded, perhaps a bit too much, as my neck felt like it was on springs.
‘Have to start somewhere I suppose; let’s hope it’s any easy one.’
I swallowed. My stomach was churning over and over and the churning increased the closer to the address we got. By the time we pulled up at the house I was feeling shaky. I was still just a raw recruit, green as the grass and about as useful as a chocolate tea pot. This would change over time and experience, but meeting death for the first time for any ambulance person was a nervous affair.
A middle-aged woman stood crying at the front door. She raised a limp hand to beacon us in as Simon jumped out. I followed hot on his tail with the oxygen.
‘Upstairs,’ indicated the woman. ‘Please, hurry!’
We hurried up the stairs, kit and oxygen cylinder banging against the wall. Inside a back bedroom there was an old woman sitting in a chair and she too was crying. On the floor was an elderly man dressed only in pyjama bottoms. Thin as a rake he was, and blue as the ocean deep. He wasn’t breathing.
Simon got down and started chest compressions whilst I fought to get the bag and mask from out of the case. I attached the oxygen to it and began to pump air into his lungs.
‘He’s dead, isn’t he?’ It was statement more than a question.
Simon gave the stock reply. ‘He isn’t very well at the moment my dear, but we’ll do what we can.’
I felt bile rise in my throat and I swallowed it back down, my heart was racing and I could feel the thumping in my chest.
‘Run down and get the chair,’ Simon instructed. ‘We’ll take this one in.’
Simon took up my position at the head of the patient so that he could use the bag and mask and compress the chest. I stood up and turned around. Out on the landing there were perhaps a half dozen people, all watching us. They made not a sound, just stood there, the shock evident on their faces.
I pushed my way through and ran downstairs. The audience didn’t want to move and they barely noticed me as I elbowed them out of the way. I grabbed the chair and blankets and ran back up, again having to barge the family out of the way. I set the chair up and we topped and tailed the patient onto it; that is, we pulled the patient into a sitting position and, while Simon reached under his arms and grabbed his wrists, I grabbed the legs and we lifted him up.
There was a groan from the corpse as we sat him up which gave a little false hope to the family, false because it was just the air being expelled from dead lungs. We ignored their murmurings and just carried on.
The thing about a corpse is that it has no muscle tone and acts like any squidgy inanimate object. It just flops about and to get it to sit still on a chair is pretty much impossible. You have to be quick with the blankets to sort of wrap it up before something pops out. After a couple of attempts we managed to secure the old gentleman and Simon tipped the chair back and began to wheel him out. I took the bottom end of the chair and we lifted him down the stairs. Half way down a foot got loose and the next thing I knew was that the whole leg flopped out and kicked me in the chest. We stopped and I had to try to somehow secure the limb. I grabbed the loose bit of blanket and sort of wrapped it around the ankle and then held onto the corner as well as the chair. It just about worked, but the knee was still loose, it flopped and banged against the wall as well as against my head with every step of the stairs, but at least it didn’t give me a kick again.
Once outside it was pretty easy to get the patient in the ambulance and soon we had him lying on the stretcher with Simon giving CPR. The middle-aged woman jumped in and sat on the side, staring dumbly ahead. I got into the driving seat and we sped off.
I radioed up to have an arrest team waiting for us at the hospital and a few minutes later we pulled up. Outside were a couple of nurses and a doctor and as I pulled open the door the doctor jumped in. A nurse helped the relative out as I just stood there. I felt useless, out of my depth and a total waste of space.
The doctor nodded and we pulled the stretcher out and into the hospital, through the corridor and into the crash room. Once there the doctor shook his head.
‘It wasn’t fair to leave him in the ambulance,’ he said. ‘Not with the relative there. Never mind boys, better luck next time.’
So that was that. The patient was dead, officially. My first corpse, and as time would show me, it was a pretty easy one.