On the streets with paramedics

AN Ipswich ambulance crew was besiged by a mob, and their bosses have slammed the public for “unnecessary” and soaring 999 calls. So health reporter HAZEL BYFORD spent a day with paramedics and technicians on the frontline to see what they are up against.

AN Ipswich ambulance crew was besiged by a mob, and their bosses have slammed the public for “unnecessary” and soaring 999 calls. So health reporter HAZEL BYFORD spent a day with paramedics and technicians on the frontline to see what they are up against.

FIGHTING for her life in A&E, the last faces an elderly woman saw were her ambulance crew.

As doctors battled to save the 91-year-old who had suffered a stroke, I became very conscious of the fact I'd never seen anyone die before. I watched as the doctors tried everything they could but in the end her frail body succumbed to nature's will and finally gave in.

I was shadowing the ambulance crew for the day, and it could have in fact been my face which the woman saw last before she closed her eyes for the final time.

Paramedic Stuart Cooper and ambulance technician Andy South re-lived how she went from seemingly well on arrival at Ipswich Hospital, to dying just minutes later. They were the ones who spoke to her last, and as they headed back to base ready for the next 999 call, they knew they would be the last ones she ever spoke to.

Stuart and Andy know they can't possibly save everyone's life - but they can help everyone. On my 12-hour shift with them I saw the good, the bad and the ugly of a day in their life. They are always there, for the genuinely needy stroke pensioner, to a suspect patient who wanted a lift to the train station rather than medical advice.

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Earlier this month ambulance chiefs in the region reported the service's busiest month ever and bosses said they “really questioned the level of emergency need” for many of the patients, urging people to consider if their condition is really an emergency before calling 999.

It doesn't take a genius to work out that needing a beer, breaking a fingernail or seeing a shooting star are not reasons to call an ambulance. But I was amazed to hear they had all been stated as actual “emergencies” by 999 callers.

Of course, the more obvious timewasters are sieved out by the control room staff who pick up the phone. But some callers aren't clear, and others are manipulative, leading to more and more ambulances being dispatched unnecessarily.

My shift with the crew started with a warning that “there is no average day.” Barely did I have a chance to ask which of Holby or Casualty was the more realistic, than a call came in to go and help a man with stomach pain.

It was 7.11am and the 98th call out of the day - on what was apparently a quiet day.

The ambulance crew suspected the patient had a ruptured blood vessel and took him to hospital. Two calls followed in quick succession; a man who had fallen over in his home and couldn't get up, and an 80-year-old woman having a suspected heart attack.

The woman was taken to hospital and Stuart then took a quick time-out to visit a patient who he helped save, after a heart attack the week before. Stuart said it's good to revisit, to help people to get closure, but unfortunately saving lives is not the way the government measures their success.

He said: “We are measured by the eight-minute target, which means you have to reach 75per cent of category A (life-threatening) calls within eight minutes. It means we can get there in eight minutes and 30 seconds and save their life and be a failure, or in seven minutes and 30 seconds and they die and you are a hero in the government's eyes.”

But politics are not enough to detract from the reasons these guys do the job.

Stuart, a paramedic for six years, said: “The best bit of job is going home knowing you've made a difference to someone's life. It's not necessarily about saving a life every day, but helping each patient as much as you can.

“You have to remember that even a fall and broken wrist for an elderly patient can be as severe as a young person getting a serious injury. Ask 99 per cent of paramedics the worst thing about the job and they'll say dealing with ill and injured children.

“For me it's hard not to get emotionally attached to any patient. If it's a child you think 'that could be my child', and if it's a grandparent you think 'it could be my grandparent.' It's also difficult being a politician and an ambassador, as well as a paramedic. People are quite often angry, especially if you've taken a while to get there and when people are hurt or injured, they get angry and aggressive.”

Andy, a technician for two years, said: “You go through a whole mixture of emotions in the course of a day. Some people don't want to be helped - they are the hardest to deal with, but you do get a high after helping people. Despite all the difficulties I wouldn't want to do any other job now.”

N Has an ambulance crew saved your life? Tell us your story. Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN, or e-mail eveningstarletters@eveningstar.co.uk

n 83-year-old man with abdominal pain in north west Ipswich. Suspected ruptured blood vessel, taken to Ipswich Hospital

n 60-year-old man unable to get up after a fall at home in north east Ipswich. An emergency lifting cushion is slid underneath him and inflated to help him up. His P is called to recommend a home visit for the man's swollen legs, breathlessness and advice on avoiding falls.

n Crew heads to town centre to provide cover but before it gets there is diverted to Copdoc. An 80-year-old woman has had a suspected heart attack in a nursing home. It is not a heart attack but the ill woman is taken into hospital. There's a quick visit to a ward to say 'hello' to a heart attack patient brought in last week.

N 91-year-old woman in south west Ipswich has a suspected stroke. The patient is awake and talking, but her face muscles have dropped and she is taken to hospital. She takes a turn for worse after arriving in A&E. Paramedics leave her with doctors who have rushed her into 'crash.' It looks likely she would die.

N Call to a north east Ipswich residential home where a woman is fitting, possibly having an epileptic fit. Patient is given a drug to stop the fit before taken to hospital.

N 13-year-old needs taking to hospital after falling off his bike in north west Ipswich, and injuring his stomach where the handle bars jabbed into him. A rapid response vehicle reaches the scene first but has no room for stretcher, so ambulance takes the boy in.

N A woman having a possible cardiac arrest in south east Ipswich turns out just to have fainted, as she got out of bed too soon. She is returned to bed.

N A 38-year-old man of no fixed address has chest pains in the town centre. He becomes agitated and refuses to go to hospital, despite same thing happening the day before.

N Before the crew gets back to base there's a call to help at house fire south east Ipswich where a woman has difficulty breathing, and man who tried to fight the fire suffered a burned hand. The man is treated and taken to hospital. The woman refuses hospital help, and police are called as it is believed she has mental health problems.

IN 1996 the Evening Star launched Ambulancewatch, to urge the turnaround of a failing ambulance service.

The campaign was launched after an ambulance took 40-minutes to reach heart attack victim Brian Woolnough.

The campaign resulted in the organisation's chief executive resigning in 2001, and a public inquiry being launched into failings. It was needed again in 2005 when David Halley-Frame died after an ambulance took more than half an hour to reach him, and Terri Calvesbert had to be taken to hospital by police after she suffered burns in 1998 because there was no ambulance available. Police also had to take Ricardo Wells to hospital with a severed artery in his arm earlier this year, because an ambulance did not arrive quick enough.