Reality bites

Ambulance memoir.

  • 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.


early 1980’s

I learnt pretty early in my career that there are jobs that people don’t mind doing and there are jobs that nobody wants to do. Even serious jobs can be interesting in a strange sort of way; something to the get the old grey matter working and something to give you a sense of satisfaction when the job’s done. However, there are some jobs that are serious and give you absolutely no sense of job satisfaction at all; these are the jobs that fill you with despair.

I was on an early turn. My crewmate was on leave and I was working with Chris who was on overtime, which meant that he attended while I was the driver and tea maker for the shift. Spring has sprung and it was a mild sunny morning. The night crew had gone home and we were settling down for a doze before the day crew came in. I’d just slurped the last dregs from my mug and had stubbed out the ciggie when the phone intruded into the peace.

‘Red call,’ called Chris. ‘Difficulty in breathing.’

I jumped up, yawned and went through to the appliance room. I opened the door and took the vehicle out; then Chris came running up and jumped in.

‘More info; this is a baby – could be a cardiac arrest.’

My heart sank.

I switched the blue lights on and we roared out of the station, heading off to the address. Neither of us said a word. I negotiated the rush hour traffic; swerving, braking, hammering my foot down on the accelerator and mentally swearing at all the cars on the road. The silence in the cab was deafening. A few cars refused to get out of the way and I blasted them with the two-tones again and again. Eventually we got off the main drag and into the side streets, I switched the noise off but I kept my foot hard down on the pedal. We lurched around a few corners and then into the street we were aiming for. A lone person was standing outside of the address waving frantically. I hit the brake and we pulled up. Chris jumped out before I had the handbrake on and I followed as soon as I could.

There are exceptions to the ambulance rule of not running to an incident. The walking time is time to think, to weigh up the situation, to gauge how things stand. This was one incident when the rule was cast aside. Chris ran and then I ran too.

Inside the house were the family; the mother, the father and two toddlers who knew something was wrong but couldn’t fathom out just what it was. The man outside was a neighbour.

The weeping mother thrust the baby at Chris who took the little bundle into his arms. The form was like a rag doll, blue of lips with staring unblinking eyes. It was naked apart from its nappy. A dribble of milky vomit came from its mouth. Chris began mouth to mouth resuscitation and compressed the chest with his fingers. I turned and ran out to open the back doors of the ambulance. Hurriedly Chris jumped on and the mother followed. I jumped into the driver’s seat and we sped off.

‘Six week old baby; cardiac arrest. Team standing by. ETA twelve minutes,’ I barked into the radio.

‘Understood,’ came the sympathetic reply.

Chris had laid the baby on the stretcher and was doing CPR. The mother was perched on the edge of the seat and weeping. I could hear the occasional desperate plea; ‘My baby, my baby! Please help my baby!’

Doing CPR in the back of a fast moving vehicle is fraught with danger. Unrestrained you can be thrown around. I called out to Chris from the front. ‘Left-hand bend.’ ‘Overtaking.’ ‘Braking;’ with the occasional, ‘You bastard. Get out the fucking way!’ to keep him informed.

The journey seemed to take forever, but eventually the vehicle fair screeched into the hospital. Word had got out about what we were bringing in and the entrance was cleared of ambulances. I drove straight in, not bothering to reverse up to the entrance. Outside were some of the team, waiting for us. The doors were ripped open and Chris grabbed the baby and jumped out. A doctor ran alongside him as they disappeared into the entrance. A nurse helped the mother out and hurried her in too. I followed and we all went straight to the crash room. The room was filled with doctors and nurses and the urgent task of trying to save the baby’s life continued.

I looked at Chris’ face; it was blank as he stood back from the trolley. I think mine was the same. The battle was in earnest; the tension in the room palpable. Lines were inserted into the baby’s groin, adrenaline administered. An intubation tube was put in and connected to the resuscitator, the defibrillator applied. Everything that could be done was being done. That little scrap was surrounded by experts who battled for its little life. Time was stretched but it didn’t matter. The fight for life was more important.

Chris and I watched from the corner of the room. We were well out of the way but were desperate for a positive outcome; but in our heart of hearts we knew that it wasn’t going to be. Unfortunately we were proved right.

After nearly an hour the consultant uttered the fateful words. ‘I think we’ve done enough. Is there anyone who doesn’t agree?’ This he directed to everyone in the room; the other doctors, the nurses and even Chris and me; the mother had been taken outside for a while. We all nodded our consent; if anyone voiced an objection the attempt would continue, but with great reluctance, the forlorn attempt to save the life of a six week old baby came to an end.

Dejectedly I went outside to clear up the back of the motor while Chris went to get some tea. Some nice person had moved our vehicle; they had turned it around and had reversed it up to the entrance, they’d also cleared up the mess in the back. I didn’t know who, but I was grateful for their kindness. I sat on the step and rolled a ciggie. I lit up, took a long deep drag and then felt my eyes prick. The emotion of the situation flooded through me and for the first time I began to question my career choice. Up until now the job had been a lot of fun, it was interesting and I had met some wonderful people, but when reality bites, it can bite hard! I tried to hold things back but it was no good; so, and not for the last time in my career, I sat on the rear step and cried.

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