In the fast lane with trusted 999 paramedics in the Camden Ambulance Service
PUBLISHED: 19:00 03 March 2013
For Camden ambulance drivers no two days are the same – one minute they might be sent to the scene of a brutal stabbing and the next they might be chatting with an old man about his favourite walking stick.
Paramedics Sam Downe, 32 and David Wedlock, 25, live a life fraught with danger from whizzing through the streets of London to arriving first at the scene of a crash.
But the job satisfaction they have is high when they know their presence might be the difference between losing a life and saving one.
London makes 4,000 calls for ambulances a day and it is a service the city quite literally could not survive without.
Wanting to find out exactly how they manage to keep the pace, I joined the paramedic team who work out of Belsize Park ambulance station for a day.
As it was a Thursday morning, I was warned that we were unlikely to come across blood and guts – the weekend usually sees more life-threatening “red” calls come in, many of which are a result of alcohol-related violence.
Nevertheless, within minutes of barrelling into the back of the ambulance, a call came through on a small computer in the front and we were racing through traffic with siren and lights flashing.
I had never been in ambulance before, so the thrill of the drive was one of the first things I asked about as I watched signs whir past the window.
Mr Downe, who has been working with the service for three years, quickly silenced my query.
“It’s quite dangerous actually,” he said. “But you get a lot of training.”
I knew that the sole focus was the medical emergency at hand and our first call was to a 33-year-old woman in Cricklewood who had suffered from a panic attack in her flat.
Expecting a brief exchange, I was very surprised to see the amount of time and depth of conversation that the two paramedics put into the case making sure that the woman felt better before they left.
“This is the normal type of case we’d see,” said Mr Downe. “There’s nothing A&E can do, but it’s about giving advice.”
It was a remarkable 45 minutes the paramedics spent with the woman, but they successfully roused her from crying in her bed to enthusiastically agreeing to ask a GP about options for therapy.
With so many calls a day, the paramedics do not always remember the details. But as we left you could see that the team were invested in the minutes that they spent with her.
“You have to hope that what you say stands her in good stead,” said Mr Wedlock, adding that sometimes he wished they could do more to help people with their housing situations.
The job of a paramedic is much faster paced than that of a doctor which can often be a relief, when so much of what they see, sadly, does not end well.
“On a ward doctors really get to know their patients and their family and friends so it can be more difficult if something happens,” Mr Wedlock explained.
“But for us, you’ve got to get them to hospital as quickly as possible.
“You can check the computers to see how a patient is doing and if you’ve bought someone back from a cardiac arrest, it’s always nice to know that they are well.”
As the ambulance went “active” again, which meant we were ready to receive calls, details of an elderly man who had fallen in his home in Alexandra Park Road, Muswell Hill, came through.
Calmly the paramedics switched on the siren – which, astoundingly, you can barely hear from inside the ambulance – and we were on our way once again.
William Allen, 88, had fallen after taking a bath and he couldn’t get up again, but he was cheery and full of conversation when we entered the room and the paramedics joked about a jumbo-size novelty bottle of Bells whisky on the table.
Again, I was astounded by the time and care the team took, unlike the image of ambulance drivers racing from disaster to disaster. I learned that what means more in this job is getting to know the patients in order to help them most effectively.
Half an hour into speaking with Mr Allen, the team establish that his condition is much more serious than they expected and he is taken to the Accident and Emergency department at the Whittington Hospital, Highgate.
“You just have to ask lots of questions,” said Mr Wedlock. “Often it doesn’t come up until the very end.”
At first Mr Allen resisted but the power of kind words prevailed beyond any medical check-up and he was happily on his way – not before insisting on packing his electric razor, of which he had three.
Mr Downe dug through the flat for the right charger at the old man’s request and when peace fell, they wheeled him outside.
“I haven’t been outside in a year!” said Mr Allen beaming. And he spent the whole journey watching the world whiz by outside the ambulance window.
At 12.30pm it was time for me to go but the paramedic’s 12-hour shift wasn’t going to end until 7pm that night.
I was surprised that we had only managed to take two calls but in a world where the clock is always ticking, the value of time and compassion was abundantly clear.