Ambulance transport

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(A note of warning for the squeamish, there are descriptions of an accident you may find difficult)

Emergency and non-emergency hospital transport I have travelled in them both. As a kid I used to look at ambulances and think they look fun to have a go in. Of course, in my youth they had simple sirens and blue rotating lights. None of these complex LED, close encounters, night club, stage show lighting effects. Nor the fantastic range of sounds they have now. These days you feel like they could actually play a tune on their sirens. I don’t mean to be dismissive and silly; they play a very serious role and I appreciate that more than many.

The first time I travelled in an emergency ambulance was in 1989. We were living at Wesley College in Bristol where I was training to be a Methodist Minister, I didn’t complete the training due to what happened next. It was breakfast time; I had just come back from morning prayers and was getting my stuff for the first lecture. Mary pointed out that there was a big pile of washing in the kitchen. Our washing machine had been broken for a while and the replacement part had arrived a few days earlier I just needed to fit it. This was not a complex job, just a new drive belt. Had it been a new bearing I would have needed a few hours. So, I decided I would quickly do it before the lecture, bad choice, I was too rushed.

Frances Greaves House, the flats at Wesley College, where the accident happened

Thinking I must have already unplugged the washing machine, note to self and everyone else, always check an electrical device is unplugged before taking it apart, I took the top cover off. The old drive belt had perished and was easily removed. I took the new belt and tried to hook it on to the lower drive wheel. This is not something easy to do just by letting it hang down and hoping it will slide itself on. You need to get you hands on it and push it into place. That was the near fatal mistake I made. I reached down into the washing machine to push the drive belt onto the bottom drive wheel. As my arm reached in, it contacted the exposed pins of a 415v 13amp capacitor. If you have ever witnessed a car being arc welded, that is what happened to my arm. An arc of electricity burnt it and I was also electrocuted. As I was bent over the machine with my arms down inside it, when my muscles contracted it held me tight against the capacitor and thus trapped. Unable to move, being burnt and electrocuted, I knew I was slowly dying. Really I should have died quickly, the doctors say I must have the heart of an ox.

Mary was in the front room with a 5-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old son. First our daughter came to the kitchen door. She looked at me, saw smoke and bright sparks and realising it was something akin to fire ran to the front door shouting “Fire, fire!” Mary thought she was playing. Then our young son came to the kitchen door looked in puzzled and walked away. I am so grateful neither of them touched me. The current passing into them could have stopped their hearts.

Mary could hear the hissing of electric current but assumed I had fixed the machine and it was filling with water. The electricity coursing through me was preventing me moving or speaking. I was in more pain than I had ever experienced or have ever been in since. Ever muscle and nerve ending was being triggered. To say it was agony would be to downplay it.

Eventually I summoned up every fibre of strength I had to repeat the phrase, “Turn the power off.” Mary heard me and came through. Again, fortunately she did not touch me. She was pregnant with Adam. She looked at every switch in the kitchen, not knowing where the flats’ junction box was. Then she worked her way through them all, starting at the light switch. I’d managed to turn my head towards the door earlier. I watched in what felt like slow motion as she switched each of the many switches off. I thought ‘By the time she gets the right one I will be dead.’ But obviously I didn’t die.

Once she turned off the power, she ran to phone 999. As I pulled my arm from inside the washing machine, I got an additional shock. There was a deep hole in my arm and blood pumping from it. Mary was telling the 999 operator I had been electrocuted, not knowing this. I looked around for something to stem the blood flow and found a tea towel to make a pressure bandage. I then sank to the floor in a pool of my own blood.

After phoning 999 Mary ran next door to get another minister in training, a friend I feel forever indebted to, Fran. She came in and without any thought for her clothing or herself, she sat in the pool of my blood and put her arm around me. This enabled Mary to sort out care for Sandy & Chris while we awaited the ambulance.

The ambulance took ages, they couldn’t find Wesley College. When they eventually arrived, I had brightened up considerably. I am one of those people who react opposite to the situation. In an emergency I am less panicked rather than more. I was laughing and joking in the ambulance. They strapped my arm under my nose, and I said, “I am never going to eat bacon again!” Think burnt flesh. By the way I eat bacon all the time now, so that didn’t last. That first ride in an emergency ambulance was a disappointment in many ways. I was sitting up looking out of the window. They didn’t have the lights or siren on. They had checked me over at the flat and decided I wasn’t in imminent danger. They were wrong. The doctors at the hospital told Mary, not me, that the next 24 hours were critical. After a major electrical accident my heart could have just stopped at any point in that time. I was wheeled into and out of the ambulance in one of those special chairs. I don’t mean to sound flippant; I don’t really want to be in need of travelling with sirens on. It’s just youthful expectation of an emergency ambulance. The ambulance crew were absolutely brilliant, helpful, friendly and skilled.

Another time I travelled in an emergency ambulance, was when we were living in Wellington and my legs stopped working again. This was after the two and a half years of them miraculously and medically unexplainably working. We waited many hours for an ambulance with the paramedics in. They had decided from the GP report that it wasn’t an emergency. Not walking is a big problem, but not life threatening.

They eventually arrived about 10.30pm. After some examinations from the paramedic they decided to take me in for further tests at Musgrove. Remember at this point, the reason they had been called is that I couldn’t stand or walk.

The lead paramedic said “As your alley is a bit bumpy and you have a lot of steps into your house, we haven’t brought a stretcher in. Can you walk to the ambulance?”

Obviously, I said I couldn’t. He then insisted that with them supporting me I could. I wasn’t given a further choice. They basically took me by each arm lifted me off the sofa and almost dragged me down the alley. My slippered toes actually scrapped the alley floor. I was trying to move them, but I only managed to move my feet about one step for every five or six of theirs, even then it was only short irregular movements, not walking. It was a terrible and very unpleasant experience. My head was hanging down, my body slumped, my weight supported totally on the two ambulance crew and my legs stiff and dragging. Had it not been for everything else that happened at that time I would have made an official complaint about the paramedic who was leading that team. He should have fetched a chair at the very least. I had enough to cope with losing the use of my legs again to think of making a complaint. Of all the times I have travelled in an ambulance, they are the one crew, the paramedic lead in particular, who were awful. All the others have been so helpful, kind, caring, professional.

I have also travelled many times in non-emergency ambulances. Let me tell you of two. I had an appointment in Liverpool in 2018. The ambulance crew were with Mary and I the whole day. It took four hours each way plus a stop for toilet and lunch. For me the toilet stop was just using a urine bottle in the ambulance. When I travel in hospital transport ambulances I must do so lying down on a stretcher, because of the collapses. Travelling on a stretcher that long, is quite difficult. I had an inflatable mattress to help, but even so the stretchers are very narrow, about my width, and the suspension of the ambulance is hard. I had many collapses and my arms had to be restrained by a blanket so that they didn’t hang uncomfortably down the side of the stretcher. Lying cocooned in a blanket, staring at the ceiling for four hours, being wheeled out to an appointment, then repeating that process home is no fun. It’s not something I wish to repeat in a hurry. But, the two ladies who took us were lovely. A nicer couple of ladies we couldn’t have wished for. They made the journey as easy as possible.

Being loaded into a hospital transport ambulance at Creech St Michael

Another time Mary and I went on a respite break to a disabled hotel in Minehead, its now closed. To get there at the time 2013, we had to hire a Red Cross ambulance. This was before I had my reclining wheelchair. Now that I have one, we can choose respite hotels or nursing homes near railway stations. We can travel by train which means I can recline my chair. It’s not as flat as a bed but works OK for train journeys. At that time, without the wheelchair we were going to Minehead by Red Cross ambulance. They charge quite a lot for their services, fortunately we got a grant to cover the hotel and travel. The crew were very helpful and as with other trips I was on a stretcher cocooned in blankets. If you have ever travelled on the Minehead road you will know that it is windy and a bit bumpy, so I did feel quite travel sick by the time we arrived. Staring at the ceiling, unable to see out, while you body is thrown around causes your brain confusion.

Without ambulances to get people to and from hospital many people would be in a big mess. They make transfers easier, smoother and more comfortable. The use of ambulances for hospital transport for people in my situation is also a great blessing and I am so grateful that we have an NHS which has these services. Apart from the one paramedic I mentioned earlier, who I see as an exception and who could well have been having an off day, the emergency ambulance crews I have met are excellent. They work long hours, see terrible, difficult things and yet remain helpful, professional, caring and understanding throughout. While the non-emergency crews don’t see all the accidents and incidents of their counterparts, they are still hard working, helpful, professional, caring and understanding.

My thanks go out to ambulance crews everywhere.

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