A day in the life of a paramedic

2014-06-18 00:00

MY morning starts like any other person’s morning, I presume. Except there are messages on my phone about motor-vehicle collisions and incidents that happened the night before.

When I arrived at base on one particular day, I was met by some of the paramedics who had worked the night shift and who were now going off. They were over tired and in a light-hearted mood, glad that their shift was over. I asked how the night was and “it was crazy man” was the sort of blunt answer I got. I should have known it was busy; it was an end-of-month weekend and some of the crews had travelled several hundred kilometres during the night.

I met the night-shift paramedic in the advanced life-support paramedic’s office, which is more of a mini store room where medical stock and different kinds of medical equipment and monitors are kept. She had just returned from an ICU transfer, where a patient is moved between two hospitals. A brief “you just have to change the oxygen and I’ll see you tonight” was the very brief but conclusive handover as she walked out of the base directly to her car, deliberately not stopping to talk to anyone, as it would delay her getting home and into bed.

You not only have to check all the vehicles for defects and damages, but also all the medical stock and equipment. You need to check that the equipment works and is charged, and that there are enough medical sundries.

After a quick staff parade and checking the response vehicle, I made a turn at the Emergency Call Management Centre, where the emergency calls are received. I helped the dispatcher reprioritise the cases, which were mostly assault cases.

The calls start coming in

While in the centre, a call came in. There had been a house fire and the police and Fire Department, who were on scene already, suspected that an elderly woman had died. An ambulance crew and I (in the response vehicle) were dispatched to the case. The ambulance reached the scene before I did, where the crew discovered that, sadly, the woman had already died. An unattended candle left burning during the night was thought to be the cause of the fire.

I was dispatched straightaway to another case. This time a medical case about half an hour away. When I got closer to the area I had to get directions to the scene from the ambulance crews who are more familiar with the area. Navigating in the rural areas is not the same as the urban areas, as very few roads have names, and if they are named they are not marked. There are no street numbers, and while some of the houses have a five-digit number painted on one of the walls, there doesn’t seem to be any logical numerical relationship between the numbers. Directions are normally in the form of land marks, like community halls, bridges, schools and little spaza shops.

I knew which turn-off from the main road I needed to take and was told that I needed to pass two schools on my left and the scene would be before the blue tuck shop. Not long after turning off the main road, the road turned to gravel and I was reminded why our response vehicles are 4x4 vehicles and not the sports cars that some paramedics in the cities have. I managed to find the pick-up point, which was, in fact, a red shipping container and not a building as I had been expecting.

The ambulance arrived on scene shortly afterwards and we treated the elderly patient for the medical condition which she was presenting with for the first time. One thing many paramedics forget is that during emergencies, you have to treat the patient and the family. The patient, for whichever condition or injury he or she has, and the family who are normally very concerned about their relative and need to be reassured and informed as to what has been done for the patient. We then transported the patient to hospital in a serious but stable condition.

We handed the patient over to the doctor. The ambulance was given further details and I started to proceed in the direction of the base. On the way back to the base, I came across the Fire Department and a tow truck parked on the side of the road; a car had caught alight. The Fire Department had already extinguished the fire and the driver had managed to escape without any injuries, but the car was severely burnt and beyond repair.

For my next case, I was dispatched to a bottle store where two men had been fighting. The men had had an argument, apparently about the one owing the other R6, and one of the men had been hit over the head with a bottle, while the other man had been taken away from the scene by his friends. I bandaged the man’s wounds and checked his vital signs. He was stable, and when the ambulance arrived he was transported to hospital, where he was later discharged after being sutured.

Early that evening, I was dispatched to a motor-vehicle collision about 40 minutes away from the base. While I was driving there, I noticed a truck on the side of the road. It had its hazard lights on and a few people standing behind it, while others were running towards it. A man was lying motionless on the side of the road. I realised that he had been hit by the truck, and that the accident had just happened. The station officer continued on to the accident to which we had originally been dispatched, while I stopped to assist the man. I parked my response vehicle between the oncoming traffic and the injured man as it was on a bend in the road and it was almost dark. I was worried that oncoming vehicles would collide with us while we were on the side of the road. Using the two-way radio, I asked the control centre to send the police and an ambulance to assist me.

I carried my equipment to the man’s side. Some of the bystanders were already crying as they thought that the man was dead. I assessed the man, who was critically injured but still alive. I was still the only person from the emergency services on the scene, but I started treating the man by giving him oxygen, putting up drips and connecting the relevant monitors to check and monitor his vital signs. A police van arrived from the nearby station. One of the police officers put on his gloves and helped me, while the other officer assisted with traffic flow. When the ambulance arrived, the crew helped me treat the patient. We administered the required medical care to the man and loaded him into the ambulance. By this time it was dark and had started to rain. We were glad to be off the side off the road as cars were driving fast past the scene, despite an early warning by the police and Road Traffic Inspectorate. The trip to hospital seemed to take forever as we had to pass though a section of road works. The hospital had been updated regarding the patient and there was a trauma team waiting for us when we got there. I handed the patient over to them.

Shift end

It was already well after 7 pm and when we returned to base, some of the night-shift crew, who were now rested, were full of energy and jokes, and ready to start their last night shift before going off on their rest days.

While driving home, I was thinking about the case I had just attended to. Was there anything I could have done differently or better, and would he be okay?

These thoughts ended quickly when I got home, as my tired son screamed: “Daddy’s home”. My baby was safely asleep and my other son needed to be carried to bed after falling asleep on the couch, not managing to stay awake to see dad.

My working day was over for now. I was at home — for a while, at least — something which I cherish, because a paramedic is never really off duty. There is always a phone that can ring, with the person saying “there is a child”, “there’s a bus overturned”, “multiple critical patients, we need you”, “there is a …” before you can even say hello.

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