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Then and Now

Posted May 05 2013 11:21am
At a Remembrance Day parade, several hundred war veterans, many of them well into their eighties and nineties, marched past an equal number of supporters who lined the streets of Whitehall, me amongst them. As long as I was in the country, I had attended every single parade for as many years as I could remember, supporting my grandfather, my great-uncle as well as all the other veterans. As they reached the Cenotaph, the cold, grey war memorial reflected the overhead skies. A fine drizzle had fallen all morning, coating the roads and pavements, but in an apparent show of respect had stopped falling as the veterans started to march. The Royal Air Force band escorted the veterans, the mix of young and old stark, but reassuring. A continuation of the generations, a knowledge that freedoms had been bought at huge cost, but that there were still those who would go on paying the price. It is both encouraging and tragic all at once, the knowledge that there are those who will continue to fight, alongside the reality that the need still exists. 

At the sound of the bugle, the flags are lowered and heads are bowed. An air of solemnity replaces the noise as a minute's silence begins, a silence crudely broken by the crackle of a police radio nearby and the words "Possible cardiac arrest on parade, St John Ambulance staff on way." 

When I look up from my place in the crowd, I can see the first shuffling of feet, clearing a path for the medical team and I approach the police officer to offer my help. He immediately pulls the gate aside and allows me through. I arrive at the same time as the team, explain who I am, and they gratefully welcome an extra pair of hands.  

The normal frenzied actions of a full resuscitation attempt are underway, but there is an acute awareness of the moment. Instructions are whispered, actions carried out in silence, even the ambulance arrives with blue lights flashing but the siren mute. The only loud instructions come from the defibrillator, as it advises to all who care to hear "Shock advised! Stand clear!" The orange button lights up and I press the button, wishing that there was another button to be pressed that would silence the instructions too. 
I never found out my patient's name, and the last I saw of him was in the back of the ambulance as he was taken to hospital, his chances of survival in single percentage figures. 
Against the odds, a few months later I found out through the grapevine that he had survived, and at the following year's parade, my grandfather pointed him out as he stood proudly alongside his comrades once more. 
Over a decade has passed since that day. Since then, I have left London, moved countries, and started on a new EMS path with a new organisation. The system may be different, but the patients are the same. They call when they are at a loss for any other options, sometimes they really need us, sometimes they just don't know where else to turn and hope for someone to share the burden and hopefully offload it.

Outside of work, we have made our home in a welcoming community, have made new friends as well as reconnecting with friends from days of yore, have moved nearer to some family whilst leaving others further away than ever. The number of expats is also fairly large, and so there are frequent visitors from overseas. Yesterday, I was introduced to one of the visitors, a friend's mother.

"Oh, so you're the paramedic?"

I'm not sure why I still find that question a little ominous.

"That's me."

"Did my son ever tell you about our story with ambulances?"

"Don't think so!"

"Well, about ten or eleven years ago, my dad was on a Remembrance Day parade and collapsed. St John Ambulance were there, they started doing CPR and they got his heart started again, and..."

I finished the sentence for her.

"And he was on parade the following year."

We both stopped in our tracks; the coincidence incomprehensible. She went on to tell me that her father lived another seven years after that day, long enough to meet his great-grandchildren, to see how the family continued to grow.

It is an occupational hazard, the knowledge that we almost never find out what happens to our patients once they are conveyed to hospital. But every so often, even if it takes a decade, we hear of remarkable stories such as this one.

My first successful resuscitation was on a gentleman whose grandson, years later, became my friend.
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