There’s a lot of talk of the Job being like no other. It’s not always easy to explain why. For me, part of it is dealing with the extremes and that on any given day we can find ourselves pushing up against and beyond these extremes. It doesn’t happen often, but I know when I’ve been pushed to my own extremes, because I remember feeling like my knees are shaking.
Part 1: How to Save a Life
I had only been a Special Constable for a few months when, while out with an experienced Response Team PC, we received a call for a welfare check. We arrived to find a very obviously concerned neighbour who told us that the lady next door had recently been in hospital and that he would generally see her every day, but that he had only seen her when she first came back from hospital and that she had not been answering her door since.
With the flat in darkness, the curtains all drawn and no answer, we satisfied ourselves of the need to gain entry, fearing for the life of the lady inside. We called for an ‘enforcer’ (a tool for smashing open doors) but while we waited we proceeded to kick the door down. Running inside, the flat was warm, and dark, with only a few low lights on. In the living room, sat on the sofa, was an old lady (we’ll call her Mary). She was clearly not very well.
I tied to get a response from her – asking her to open her eyes, asking her to squeeze my hand. As I reached for Mary’s hand, I could feel it was ice cold to the touch. Mary was still breathing, but was only barely responsive. As my colleague called for an ambulance, I talked to Mary – assuming she could still hear me – and sought to reassure her, that help was here and that all would be well. I held Mary’s hand in mine, willing her to draw warmth from me, and put a foil blanket over her, hoping it might help her retain what little heat remained. As I sat with her, I quickly looked around the room and noted photos of her in better times, along with those small trinkets that our grandparents might generally have about the place.
In those few minutes, that seemed to last for hours, I wished and wished that Mary would show some “signs of significant recovery” (in first aid speak). I remember holding her hand in mine, and gently stroking the hair on her head. Repeating to her that help was on the way, that she was OK, throwing in the odd question or request to see if I could elicit a response. But, as the clock hands ticked by, I could sense Mary’s breathing becoming less and less normal. She started to take long pauses between breaths and as I recognized those dreaded agonal breaths, I remember the hairs on my neck standing on end. Mary was seriously unwell and her breathing was compromised and, as if on autopilot, I moved to CPR.
In some senses, the training covers it all. But, at the same time, nothing prepares you for that ‘fight or flight’-like moment where you have to step up, put your hands on the chest of another human being, in this case, as far as I could tell, a lovely old lady called Mary, and literally do all you can to keep them alive.
As I settled into an adrenaline-fuelled rhythm, I remember my thoughts briefly and selfishly wandering to the ETA for the ambulance. I was worried that maybe I wasn’t doing it right, what if I was doing it wrong, was this all really happening? Surely this can’t all be happening? It must have been ten minutes, at least, before the ambulance arrived. At which point, I rather hoped I might be able to stop, take a step back, let the “professionals” take on the awesome responsibility for Mary’s life. But instead, they told me to keep going, while they rigged up their equipment and took steps to secure her airway more fully. Eventually, with a few pauses to allow for the defibrillator to “analyse heart rhythm”, it was decided that Mary was “making respiratory effort” and the paramedics got her on the stretcher for transport to the ambulance and onwards to the hospital.
Again, I thought, right, that’s me done. But no, I was told to keep going. As we got in the ambulance, I thought again, surely they must take over now? But no, I was staying with Mary all the way to hospital, continuing the chest compressions.
As the ambulance weaved its way through the evening rush hour, I don’t honestly recall much – other than trying to focus on staying upright and keeping my CPR effective. It felt like, and I rather hoped that, I had somehow ended up in an episode of Casualty. That in a few moments we would all be told ‘Cut!’ and Mary would sit up and have a cup of tea. Surreal thoughts, but then it was a rather surreal experience.
On arrival at hospital, as Mary was wheeled from ambulance bay to resus, I kept on with the chest compressions. Once in resus, in a bay, at last, I was told to stop and the medical staff took over.
As I stepped backwards, away from Mary and out of the way of the medical team, I felt like I was on the end of a bungee line, reaching the bottom and decelerating back into reality. As my mind raced to catch up with what had happened in the last 45 minutes, I looked down at my hands and found them shaking.
I was physically exhausted, mentally drained, my knees were shaking and my shirt literally soaked through with sweat. I probably drank seven or eight styrofoam cups of water, one after the other, from the watercooler nearby.
Having arrived into Mary’s life so suddenly, and having spent the last hour with her in such challenging circumstances, I didn’t want to leave until we knew she was going to be OK. As we waited and as the medical team continued with their efforts, it became apparent that all was not going to be OK.
Mary, I’m sorry to say, didn’t make it despite all our best efforts.
After waiting for some hospital paperwork, we left. I was drained and, for want of a better term, shell-shocked. I don’t remember much of what happened after learning that Mary wasn’t going to make it. But I do remember walking out through the A&E waiting room and a rather rough-looking chap getting up and walking towards me. In my slightly catatonic state, I must confess I expected the worst: dreading some sort of drink-fuelled rant about <insert anti-police topic of the day here>.
The guy spoke loudly and with real animation, doing nothing to allay my fears:
“Fella, yeah, fella, listen fella.”
“I saw what you did mate.”
He went on:
“You gave your everything there mate.”
“People give you lot a hard time, but honestly mate, maximum respect yeah. You gave your all. I saw what you did mate.”
And with a pat on the back, and a “thanks, that means a lot”, my partner and I left the hospital. I opened the car door and collapsed, exhausted, into the passenger seat.I would be lying if I said I knew what had just happened, but I knew I had been pushed to my limits. My knees felt like they were still shaking.