For us lucky ones, the closest we will ever get to an ambulance is squashed up against the kerb at a red light as it whizzes past at 60 miles-per-hour.
But have you ever stopped to think about the people inside – not just the patients, but the medical staff working tirelessly around the clock, treating everything from heart attacks to bumps on the head? Reporter Amy Holmes finds out more about the North West Ambulance service which covers the whole of the Fylde coast.
At around 1.50pm I head to the ambulance station on Waterloo Road in Blackpool which is the base of operation for North West Ambulance services in the area – not Blackpool Victoria Hospital, as some people mistakenly believe.
I shake hands with paramedic Kurt Katzmann, 32, from Marton, and technician Sarah Pegg, 31, from Bispham. Father-of-one Kurt has five years experience as a paramedic and introduces me to the inside of their ambulance – basic life support equipment, oxygen masks, drugs, and IV wires. There are three chairs inside and one bed, which is more of a padded trolley strapped to a grid on the floor.
We set off at 2pm - Sarah drives – to an 87-year-old woman in Squires Gate who hasn’t been to the toilet in more than a week.
“I feel like I’m carrying a ton of concrete inside me,” she says pitifully. “I feel like I’m nine months pregnant.”
We get a lot of people suffering the effects of legal drugs
Kurt checks her stomach for any signs of movement while Sarah takes her blood pressure. Her heart is healthy and she’s physically fit. She bounds up the steep steps to the ambulance with relative ease and boasts about her successful management career as she’s zoomed into Blackpool Victoria Hospital with a suspected bowel obstruction.
She is the day’s most easy-to-please patient.
Next up is a rather vague report of a woman with a “head injury” in Fleetwood.
“When they say a ‘head injury’, we don’t know whether its just a cut or whether it’s a serious trauma,” Kurt says, switching on the sirens which sound mercifully quieter from the inside. The ambulance rocks in the wind as we rush to the scene. Luckily Sarah is no stranger to driving in dangerous weather conditions – and says blasting down a 30 zone at 50 miles-per-hour actually helps her focus more.
We step out into blistering winds. I’m freezing in my wool coat and high-vis jacket. Kurt has left his coat in the ambulance. He checks over a disorientated woman who was found “sleeping” in the middle of a busy road by a police officer. Her pupils are dilated and she’s only minimally aware of her surroundings.
Kurt asks her if she has taken any drugs. After a bit of mumbling and swaying off to the side she denies it – she knows better than to admit to anything with a police officer still looming over her with his camera glinting at his chest. She comes clean when we get her into the back of the ambulance – she’s too far gone to convey exactly how much heroin she has injected, but manages a slurred “yeah” when Kurt puts the question to her again.
Kurt explains the woman is a known heroin addict and takes the opportunity to talk about the dangers of legal highs.
He said: “We often get a lot of people suffering the effects of legal drugs, especially legal highs such as Spice.
“At least with normal drugs you know what you’re dealing with. With cocaine or heroin there are drugs we can give to combat the effects and help the person if they do take an overdose.
“With legal highs nobody knows what’s in it and the effects are totally unpredictable. We’ve had people with soaring temperatures and heart rates in the hundreds and there’s not much we can do.”
He injects 800mg of a drug called Naloxone into the woman’s leg to help bring her down from her drug-fuelled high and warns me to keep my distance.
“She’s probably feeling the way she wants to,” Kurt says. “This drug will completely stop the effects of the heroin and can make her feel quite nauseous. They can get quite mad with you quite quickly.”
The woman’s pupils shrink back down to a normal size and she is no longer having trouble staying upright in her seat. Kurt asks her when she injected the drug.
“This morning,” she replies.
Kurt asks: “What morning was that?”
“Tuesday,” she says.
The woman is wheeled into the hospital, and when Kurt comes back, he tells me she has perked up quite a bit.
There is a brief, hour-long interlude wherein we are called to a Blackpool street where a 19-year-old woman is complaining of chest pains. She’s asthmatic and an ex-smoker, and Sarah hooks her up to an ECG machine to check for any irregularities in her heart rate. She’s in top form, but Kurt still asks her to go with them to Blackpool Victoria Hospital as a safety precaution. She refuses, so Kurt refers her onto the Acute Visiting Service: a 24-hour walk-in service that can provide prescriptions quickly.
Kurt says: “The service was introduced a few years ago and it’s the best thing we’ve had in a long time. It helps reduce the number of people in A&E.”
It’s NHS policy that on-duty ambulances return to the bay if they have an empty schedule, but such breaks are an unusual occurence as paramedics have people dialling 999 constantly. We are just under a mile from the station when we are called to an incident in Grange Park – a 62-year-old man is having breathing problems.
Paramedics from the rapid-response cars are already buzzing around the scene when we arrive, dragging wires and complicated-looking machines all over the place. The man has an extensive history of chest problems – he’s had four heart attacks, and he’s well on his way to his fifth. He’s draped across the sofa covered in sweat. Kurt asks someone to fetch him a drink of water.
“There’s only one problem,” the poor man chokes out. “I’ve got a dog!”
The jet black Staffordshire Bull Terrier that was snuffling at the kitchen door bursts out, tail wagging furiously. He leaps onto the sofa and slobbers all over his master’s face. He’s pure muscle and too heavy to be hauled back to the kitchen single-handedly, so I pin him down on the sofa and call him “good boy” until he calms down. His owner holds his paw while the paramedics shove a three-inch needle into his arm.
“He’s like my son. He keeps me going,” the man says.
The dog cries bitterly when the man is strapped onto a stretcher and whisked out of the door. His devastated howls echo down the street. His owner gives me his house keys.
“Could you give these to my neighbour?”
We rush him to the hospital, lights blaring. The man thanks Sarah and Kurt for their help as he is wheeled away.
It’s now close to 8pm and almost time for a break, but a medical emergency can strike at any time – we are called to Lytham, where an elderly man has fallen in his home.
We crowd into the living room. The 87-year-old man is lying at his wife’s feet and his carer doesn’t dare try to help him up in case she hurts him. He seems as happy as he can be for a man who has been lying on the floor for a good 10 minutes and is enjoying an old Masterchef re-run playing on the TV in the corner. Kurt and Sarah examine him for aches and pains before helping him back into his chair. His carer explains that he is not supposed to walk without a zimmerframe – but because of his memory problems he keeps forgetting. This is his second fall in one day.
“What year is it?” Kurt asks him.
“1986,” he replies.
They decide to check him into hospital, along with his wife, who is too frail to be safely left alone in the house.
By this time it’s pushing 10pm and I’m tired. I haven’t had a drink in nine hours. Sneaking a couple of salted peanuts from Kurt and Sarah’s stash is a bad idea. I ask Kurt if people often die while he’s on the job.
“Quite a lot, unfortunately,” he says. “I’ve got the attitude that I want everyone to be okay and I do get upset when people die. Probably other paramedics or nurses would think that is very silly, though.
“Every now and then you’ll get really bad days. Especially ones involving children.
Sometimes you’ll get a patient who reminds you of your mum or your little girl and it just drains you.
“Sometimes my wife brings my daughter to the hospital after a bad day, just so I can see her.”
We arrive back at the bay at around 10.20pm.
For me the night is over – I chug a three-month-old bottle of stale water I find under the driver’s seat of my car – but for Kurt and Sarah the work is just beginning.
They will drive around Blackpool and the Fylde until past 2am, picking up casualties and ferrying them around, rushing them through the automatic doors at Blackpool Victoria Hospital on a padded trolley.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that ambulance drivers don’t just flick the blue lights on if they’re running a bit late and don’t want to queue at the traffic lights with Tom, Dick and Harry in their Ford Fiestas.
They really are that busy. “Besides,” Sarah adds, “The NHS logs every time we put the lights on.”