“I JUST want to die,” slurred the man who’d popped a cocktail of pills and was sitting, wild-eyed and agitated, on a sofa in his lounge. His brother, absent-mindedly playing video games, perched quietly as an emergency co-responder went through his sibling’s medication box, finding out what tablets he’d washed down with a bottle of Diet Coke.
“How many of this one, and this one, and this one?” he quietly asked the bleary-eyed and confused patient, surrounded by a filth-strewn room littered with cigarette ends and magazines. I’d just walked into the second floor flat and stood there in disbelief, rooted to the spot, my heart pounding and emotions all over the place. I was following two West Kent paramedics on a Sunday nightshift – and the evening had suddenly become awfully real.
As a journalist I’m used to writing and investigating these stories retrospectively. We get told about an incident and we sniff out what happened. But here I was experiencing the story first-hand. It’s what Nick Seddon and Stuart Jordan deal with on a daily basis – and I didn’t particularly like it.
Don’t get me wrong, the thrill of racing up London Road to that first overdose call in Sevenoaks was exhilarating. Turning out of Kent and Sussex Hospital’s ambulance station, I gripped the handrail as the speedometer inched its way well over 55mph. As our sirens blared and blue lights blazed, cars parted, showing us a courtesy I’ve never seen since moving to the South East.
“I could get used to this,” I shouted over the cacophony of noise as the speed camera by the Hand and Sceptre pub flashed us on our way. We didn’t know what the job involved, only that a man in his 30s was in trouble and someone was already on the scene. I wasn’t sure what to expect – so to walk in on someone who’d just swallowed 200 tablets was a serious shock to my system.
Regaining composure I watched as the paramedics made sure he was stable before taking him to the ambulance foramore detailed check-up. “You’ve got the blood pressure of an athlete,” joked Stuart, putting him at ease, before saying he’d have to go to Farnborough’s Princess Royal University Hospital for treatment.
Waiting for a nurse, the patient pointed to where a handcuffed teenager wearing an England football shirt sat, monitored by Met Police officers, with his eyes rolled back into his head. “You should interview him for your story,” he laughed. His laissez-faire attitude about what he’d done shocked me – but I later found out he was a “serial overdoser”, as the paramedics called him, who’d done the same a fortnight before. This was a way of life to him and it seemed he liked it.
Waiting for the next job to come in, I asked if overdoses were common. “Oh yes, Tunbridge Wells has a big heroin problem. It’s bad on some of the estates, like Showfields, Sherwood and Ramslye, but it happens all over the town,” said Nick. “Tonbridge has it too, but I wouldn’t say the estates there are worse than those in Tunbridge Wells. We have a lot of serial overdosers in both.”
A beep sounded, cutting him off mid-sentence, and it was on to a plush modern country house in Underriver, where a an elderly man had collapsed with chronic back pain. He’d been unwell and had suddenly gone downhill, something which Nick and his six years’ experience soon realised could be a kidney infection. Before long we were on our way back up to Farnborough.
Astounded by the frenetic pace, I wanted to know whether it’d be busy for the rest of the night, and most importantly, when I could tuck into my sandwiches. “It’s normally pretty non-stop until around 3am, then we’ll have a lull, and at 6am older people wake up and fall out of their beds,” said former personal trainer Nick.
Our first three hours had been pretty intense, so what was it like when he first started? Was it an eye-opener? “Yes, definitely. On my first proper night I dealt with a fatal stabbing in Canterbury, the second shift I delivered a baby and on my way to the third there was a crash in front of me so I helped with that too.”
Having dropped off our second patient we were called to a serious two-car crash on Seven Mile Lane in East Peckham. Just as I was registering the fact I could be seeing a fatality, we were stood down. We were too far away and, although we’d have made it within the target time, a crew closer to the incident had declared themselves available and were ordered out instead.
The system, controlled from central HQ in Coxheath, prioritises incidents and allocates them to the nearest available teams. On the way to a job they can be diverted elsewhere, but once they’ve signed in to a particular location they remain undisturbed, allowed to focus fully on the task in hand. It also means the crews could end up anywhere in the recentlymerged counties covered by South East Coast Ambulance Service – Kent, Surrey and Sussex.
This is something the new Make Ready depot system, which has already been introduced into Stuart’s home town of Hastings, will capitalise on. “I love it. It takes pressure off crews as we can pick up clean and fully stocked ambulances and go,” said Stuart, who has one year’s experience and does overtime out of the seaside resort.
I desperately wanted the next call to be local and, sure enough, the control room’s super-computer kicked in and we were in Hildenborough, where an 81-year-old had fallen from his wheelchair, smashed his nose on the floor and broken his upper arm. The paramedics, helped by a staff responder already there, worked quickly, methodically and calmly to pump him full of morphine, splint his arm in vacuum-packed polystyrene balls, and lift him into the ambulance.
Safely deposited at Kent and Sussex Hospital, we were allowed a short “lunch break“, ironic when it was around 2am, where, joined by the other Tunbridge Wells crew who’d dealt with two men smashing their hands through windows, we swapped stories over food. Nick took a couple of bites of his sandwich and the inevitable happened – a woman on the nearby Showfields estate had serious chest pains. We hopped back into the ambulance and careered down the now deserted streets. The 61-year-old was hauled out on a wheelchair for an ECG scan and taken to Kent and Sussex with suspected angina.
Back at the station we were finally given an uninterrupted 30 minutes, but I couldn’t relax knowing that the radio could burst into life at any second. It had now gone 3am the lull started to kick in and we waited... and waited... and waited.
The crew, on shift until 7am, were later called to Sevenoaks for standby, but as my eyes were half closed I called it a day and made my weary way home.
Trudging through the streets of Tunbridge Wells I reflected on a hectic evening and an incident when a patient’s friend hugged and thanked me for my work. Acutely embarrassed, I quickly explained I was just a journalist and all the praise, and more, should go to the people decked out in green. Interested in my take on what I’d seen so far, she asked me how I’d sum up their work. “Just amazing,” I replied. And I really meant it.