People saying they’ll leave the ambulance service to go stack shelves in a supermarket, give up life-saving work for something mindless and stress-free – at almost as good an hourly rate. I heard this a lot and just this July officially gave up being an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) to instead drive Mercedes Sprinters for a supermarket – delivering food to happy folk, instead of dying people to hospital.
Although I’d effectively been accepted to go work for a different service, I’d burned out, in fact was already off sick having declared “mental health” – the red button phrase that management will take seriously – following what would be my last ever job, an absolute horror, that capped a series of jobs where we averted the worst, but I couldn’t stop the ‘what ifs’. Fearing wedging the ambulance on blues down an alley with a stroke patient aboard, being unable to access a flat for a ‘baby not breathing’, only to find the baby screaming as loud as the panic-stricken mother. All built up. When off, work phoned every week, but it was many weeks before I could even speak about work without grinding to a halt, like Tom Birkin in A Month In The Country. It’s not all money.
Our service has generous overtime for anti-social hours and inducements to cover a certain number of extra shifts – but you’re adding 12-hour shifts, usually without breaks, at stations miles from base, between the four nights off the bat and the three dawn starts two days later. The jetlag is epic, and the life you’re paying for – bringing up children, running a home, living beyond getting up at 4.30 am to come home at 8pm, needs energy. The overtime is there because we’re desperate for staff, as old hands finally pack up and droves of new recruits burn out in the churn. New staff are on relief, every day a different base, different part of town, a new crewmate, usually lovely but sometimes jaded, pedantic, their way yet at odds with the latest clinical bulletin. And this goes on for months, years.
Within weeks of my jump from the black-and-white certainty of the classroom to the far-flung spectrum of grey reality, Covid turned up and wrecked all that, with daily updates about how not to catch or spread the plague resulting in a 70-plus page volume to be consulted while scrabbling each morning to find a working thermometer on base. Being held up for hours at patients’ homes by an overwhelmed 111 sans any spare GPs to call us back, as we boiled in masks, aprons, hazmat suits, people having heart attacks not calling us because “I know you’re really busy”. Seeing refrigerated container units to store the dead appear overnight in car parks. Daily emails about more colleagues passing away years too soon. The gallows humour in the mess could be magnificent, but the poignance of the silence when the news announced NHS staff deaths was heart-rending.
Demoralising and infuriating
It was a weird, chaotic time that’ll take years to unpack – but we got through the worst, beyond my admittedly depressive outlook the incredible buoyancy of most of the frontline staff endured and still does. For me, the most demoralising and infuriating time was the Covid surge of December 2021, when half the jobs were, we suspected without carrying our own test kits, Covid, but unlike the early days of mostly older folk with chronic lung conditions, these patients were often young, fit – but unvaccinated, proudly so, because they “didn’t believe in Covid” or thought the vaccine was some plot to inject unknown things into our bodies for nefarious ends. Half of the resuscitation unit would be filled with these types, exhaling disease all over everyone, repeating between breaths the murderous disinformation fed to them on the Internet and talk radio from the usual libertarian supporters of “let the bodies pile high” Johnson.
Support the NHS workers
By the time his Neronic behaviour was fully exposed, and all the billions in waste and bribes still being added up, I was already on the way out. Anyway. My experiences pale compared with many others, who are still working and bearing so much with far greater gallantry and gall. But really, pay them, all the ambulance staff, the nurses, the NHS. Support them with your heart and soul, by God they earn it and need it.