In a devastating dispatch, one paramedic working in south-east England reveals the chilling reality of life on the Covid front line.
As hospitals see a dramatic rise in younger patients needing treatment, medics are still having to deal with other emergencies, including heart attacks, births and accidents…
MONDAY: CANCER PATIENT IS SCARED TO GO TO HOSPITAL
I’ve wanted to be a paramedic since I was seven years old but nothing could have prepared me for this. Every day is like New Year’s Eve on steroids.
Queues outside hospitals are now measured in hours instead of minutes. The word ‘unprecedented’ has almost become a cliche but we’ve really never seen scenes like this before.
My 12-hour shift starts at 6.30am. While the driver, an ex-police officer, checks the lights, I give our equipment the once over: defibrillator, oxygen canisters, airway kit, canulas, drugs, stretcher, PPE and a grab bag filled with essentials.
In a devastating dispatch, one paramedic working in south-east England reveals the chilling reality of life on the Covid front line. Pictured: Paramedics outside the Royal London Hospital on January 11
Immediately, we’re sent to relieve another crew who are attending an elderly woman at risk of a heart attack because of her extremely high blood pressure.
It’s easy to forget but coronavirus is not the only medical condition around.
People still suffer strokes, asthma attacks and accidents, but often leave it longer before seeking help because they are afraid of being exposed to the virus in hospital.
We wait in line outside the hospital for two hours, doing our best to keep her comfortable, before heading out on our next call.
A woman battling cancer has collapsed at home. She doesn’t remember the fall but refuses our request to take her in. She is terrified she will catch the virus in hospital. I don’t blame her.
‘Baby has been born’ flashes up on the monitor. When we arrive, the mother is cradling her healthy son on the bathroom floor.
I clamp the umbilical cord and allow the father to do the honours. A nice end to the day – even if we finish an hour late.
TUESDAY: I CAN’T EVEN GIVE MY LITTLE BOY A HUG
I’m exhausted yet wake at 4am and clock-watch until I need to get up at 6am. The first two patients are eerily similar: men in their late 40s and early 50s with no underlying health conditions who have rapidly deteriorated ten days after testing positive for coronavirus.
It’s the same every time – shortness of breath, fever, cough and extreme lethargy around eight to ten days after a positive test. Their oxygen levels plummet.
Unlike the first wave, when it was mostly elderly people, we are now rushing a lot of younger patients to hospital.
The 45-year-old’s young son is still asleep. The man tells his wife not to wake him to say goodbye, refusing to contemplate the very real risk he might never come home.
The 54-year-old’s wife is panicked, explaining her husband has never missed a day’s work in his life.
Pictured: A patient is seen waiting in an ambulance outside the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel on January 20
I try to reassure her he’s in safe hands but it’s hard when you are head-to-toe in PPE. We are denied even the humanity of a smile.
That afternoon we attend a young woman who is being sectioned by police under the Mental Health Act for threatening to kill herself.
There are nine ambulances waiting outside the hospital and we are told it will be a minimum of a four-hour wait.
It all has a knock-on effect: the longer we wait outside, the fewer people we can help. Thankfully, we are only there for three hours.
I finish just 45 minutes late. It’s a blessing – two weeks ago I worked a run of 15-hour shifts.
As I walk through the door, my 20-month-old son toddles over for a hug. I feel guilty but I’ve got to avoid him until I’ve stripped off my uniform, washed it at 60C and had a shower. We spend a blissful 15 minutes together before his bedtime.
WEDNESDAY: NOT ENOUGH SPACE FOR ALL PATIENTS
It’s my wife’s turn to get up at the crack of dawn. She’s a part-time A&E nurse so is often treating the very patients I drop off.
We both know there’s not enough space for the sheer volume of patients – they just keep coming – and question how long it can continue like this.
I’m on a night shift so spend quality time with my son during the day. Usually my mum will help out but she’s shielding as she has diabetes and lung disease.
I haven’t seen my parents since last year and I’m terrified they’ll catch it before having the vaccine.
My wife returns at 8.45pm, so we have just 15 minutes together before I leave for my shift.
I’m driving a rapid-response vehicle tonight which means I’ll be sent out ahead of ambulances for category one cases – the most serious.
THURSDAY: NO AMBULANCE TO DO MY SHIFT IN
It’s a quiet start but around 1am I’m dispatched to a cardiac arrest. My adrenaline surges as I fly down rain-slicked streets with my blue lights flashing and siren blaring.
I’m there in minutes but just as I’m donning an FFP3 surgical mask and hazmat suit, I’m stood down. It was a ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ order and an ambulance is dealing with it. The same thing happens three times that morning.
I seem to spend hours donning and doffing PPE and wiping down surfaces, before returning home to catch some sleep as the sun is rising.
Pictured: Paramedics wearing PPE wheel a patient from an ambulance outside the emergency department of the Royal London Hospital on January 19
I leave for another night shift at 6.30pm but no ambulance is available as the day crew are stuck in a queue outside a hospital.
When one does arrive, we are immediately dispatched to a ‘flagged’ address – meaning the caller has a history of abuse to paramedics.
We are on high alert in case things turn nasty but there’s no cause to call the police. The patient is suffering abdominal pains but is still, I notice, able to drink four cans of extra-strong lager.
I’ve been to the next caller’s house countless times. He has leg pain but we can’t rule out a clot so take him in. Both calls take nearly six hours. It’s going to be a long night.
FRIDAY: I THINK OF FOUR MATES KILLED BY THE VIRUS
At 2am we attend a man in his late 30s suffering from a post-Covid cough and chest pain. He says he doesn’t want to come in and will call his GP on Monday morning if his symptoms worsen. What if it’s too late by then?
Just before 4am, I’m playing midwife again. Another perfect little boy, this time born on the bedroom floor. But just 90 seconds before our shift is due to end we are diverted.
A man in his early 80s has died of a suspected heart attack in his sleep. His distraught wife attempts CPR but I have to tell her it’s over. I fill out a Recognition of Life Extinct Form and wait for the police.
On the way back to the station my colleague is quiet. He tells me that he feels there is no end in sight.
I don’t reply. There’s only so long that you can run on adrenaline.
Most of my colleagues are burnt-out. Four of them have sadly died with the virus and there will probably be more.