There was a dirty yellow moon sitting low on the horizon as I trundled home after this shift.
Two small women from Louisiana asked if I would allow them to have their photographs taken with me and the car. With a deep blue, sunny sky and a backdrop of the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, I thought it would be unreasonable for me to say no.
Each in turn, they stood by me, making me feel tall for a change. They smiled and giggled and confirmed with one another that they’d taken the perfect pictures for the folks back home. “I want to show my daughters that you guys drive on the wrong side”, one of the happy ladies told me. This made me smile.
The first call came in a few hours after I’d started and I was concerned by the response category it had been given. ‘3 year old vomiting blood’ was surely more urgent than a low-amber? I queried it and my colleague in Control allowed me to continue to it, even though I’d been cancelled.
When I arrived I spent three or four valuable minutes wandering around the council estate, trying to find the building I needed. As usual there were no clear signs and the place was a mish-mash of concrete boxes, piled three storeys high. Calls to places like this increase the possibility of us getting to a life-threatening crisis later than we should. It could literally cost you your life if you live in one of these estates.
I eventually got to where I was needed, with the help of a resident and the man who made the 999 call. I was led up to a front room and met the little boy and his mother. She told me that he’d had a cough for a month and, although tests were being done to find out what was wrong with him, he seemed no better for seeing the doctor recently. This morning he’d coughed and produced ‘stringy blood’, according to his mum.
I explained that it was fairly common to produce a little bit of blood in sputum when you’ve been coughing hard and for a long period; it’s the result of small blood vessels rupturing due to the pressure. However, when I first saw this little blond-haired boy, I noticed how pale he was. He was also very lethargic; his behaviour wasn’t animated as it should be for his age.
He also had a number of bruises on his leg and I asked if he tended to mark easily. Both parents (dad had shown me in and was now in the room) confirmed that he did. Obviously I need to tell you that I wasn’t prying because I suspected any kind of abuse. This was a loved child and that was clear. The parents had become frustrated with his condition because he couldn’t sleep due to his nocturnal coughing fits. He also had less energy than normal recently and his pallor gave them real cause for concern.
I considered anaemia, particularly aplastic anaemia but there are many other conditions that could cause these signs and symptoms; some minor and transitional and some, like the one that ran through my mind, a little more significant.
I took the child and his parents to hospital and booked him into Paediatric A&E, hoping along with mum and dad, that the doctors would find nothing more wrong with him that a viral infection.
Contrast the last call with this one; my next outing was south of the river for a 30 year-old male ‘lying on the street, status unknown’. This means that somebody has called 999 and reported a man who was probably sleeping and nothing more. When asked if they’d check consciousness or breathing, the caller has declined to do so. This hints at the caller being in a building, possibly overlooking the ‘dead’ body.
I got there and found a slumbering drunk. The single pertinent clue that was next to him was the can of lager. It’s funny how that little detail escaped the caller’s interest. It would have been helpful. But I already knew this was nothing more than an eyesore-cleanup job and a MOP had tasked the good-old ambulance service to do it.
And here’s the shocking contrast. The little boy coughing blood was not as high a priority as the man I found curled up and obviously asleep in the street. This man got the highest priority response in fact, because we simply can’t afford to take the risk that he isn’t in cardiac arrest. It’s not the Service to blame; most of my colleagues in Control would see this for what it was, and act accordingly. It’s the public – the person who decided he needed an ambulance when he didn’t even look like he was unwell. That person felt it was their duty to call us, yet couldn’t go and check the man to see if he was okay.
Good Samaritans makes these calls from buses as they pass by. The fact that the street is teeming with people and that dozens, if not hundreds of individuals have walked passed this man without reporting any alarm, doesn’t seem to register. What happened to common sense in this world?
So, I tried to wake him up and got a furious tirade of abuse for my trouble. I decided he was too tricky to handle, so I asked for the police to come and move him. They responded by informing me that they had nothing available to assist and that they were watching the man on CCTV and he looked ‘asleep’, so why were they needed?
They had a point. Being drunk and asleep on the pavement is not a crime, per se, so why would they bother with it? Indeed, they’d spotted he was asleep by remote control, so it made me a bit unhappy that we couldn’t do the same. Instead of which I had to make another approach and risk getting a punch or full-blown mugging from this unpleasant person. I could have left him there but I’d have no paperwork to support his request for me to “f**k off” (which is tantamount to a refusal), and knowing Sod and his stupid law, this guy would drop dead the minute I drove off.
So I walked back over, after watching his foetal body and hating him for being able to sleep when I felt so tired. Ten or twelve people passed by... some of them were school kids. They all recognised what the hysterical 999 caller couldn’t. They knew he was drunk and asleep. They all knew he was alive and breathing; their grins and chuckles and comments of "look at that stupid effing drunk" proved this.
The twenty minutes I’d spent watching over him like a sponsor had obviously helped chill him out, because when tried for the second time to rouse him without bloodshed, he sat up and became reasonable (ish) about the whole thing. “Why the f**k can’t people leave me to sleep?” he moaned. I agreed with him; why couldn’t they just leave him to sleep?
He began to wrestle with a short, yellow cigarette that had most likely been recovered from a bin, and a lighter that refused to spark, let alone light. The ciggie and the lighter helped me muse over his life and I felt guilty about that. I saw the combination of the yellow short-end cigarrete and the useless lighter as a sum-up of who he was now.
“Oi, mate. Can you try to light this for me?” he asked, handing me the dead Bic. I wondered how this was going to look up in CCTV heaven as the eyes of the law watched me. I could almost hear them sniggering as they witnessed my fall from paramedic hero on the streets, to ciggie-lighting bitch to the great unwashed. My mental eyes rolled at the thought. But I’m not too proud to light a man’s cigarette if it gets him out of my life. If only the damned lighter would do its job!
Luckily, this drunken sleepy-head had a spare or ten on him, so he offered me another lighter and this one, thankfully, did what it was paid to do. Thus, within a few minutes, and after almost half an hour and the wasting of hundreds of pounds of tax-payers money, the blue-light emergency, potentially life-saving call, ended with me slinking back to my car and driving off with a happy, drunken idiot in my rear-view mirror - sitting on the same piece of pavement he’d slept on and been deemed dead upon. I had no doubt whatsoever that he’d simply draw out his cigarette, blacken his lungs a little more and fall back down into a pillow-less dream and that the general public would walk on by til somebody, somewhere decided he was a corpse.