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A paramedic in England shares the triumphs and trials of her days running from call to call with writer Cat Allen.
Text: Cat Allen
Country: United Kingdom

ince the 1800s, England has had some form of ambulance service. Horse-drawn carriages would transport infectious patients from their homes into quarantine, for example.

Call the 999 emergency services in the United Kingdom today, and you’ll speak with a trained dispatcher who will determine if your emergency is for the police, fire, or ambulance, and send the appropriate service to you. If it is a medical emergency, an ambulance will be hurtling toward you within minutes, with blue lights flashing and a siren blaring.

And inside that ambulance might be Katy, one of the service’s young paramedics. (Her name has been changed for confidentiality reasons.) She recently graduated with a bachelor’s of science degree, a university-based training placement.

TT: Hi Katy, thanks for chatting with us before your shift this morning!

Katy: Good morning!

TT: What are you expecting from your shift today?

K: To be honest you just never know what your next incident will be. We really can be called to anything. Most calls first thing in the morning are elderly people that have fallen or cardiac arrests that have occurred during the night.

TT: Is the variety something that attracted you to this career?

K: Definitely. I couldn’t imagine working 9-5 in an office. It’s not just the life- saving part I love. I really enjoy meeting people and learning about them. We meet such a variety of people from all walks of life.

TT: What was the training like to become a paramedic?

K: It was hard work! It was amazing, as I learnt so much, but it was stressful. I had three years of alternating months between university studying and on-placement work. Working a 37.5+ hour week plus writing essays and coursework was intense, although it was worth it! It really is fantastic to be a qualified paramedic.

TT: So just to clarify, there are two paramedics in the ambulance. The switchboard dispatches the ambulance which is geographically closest to the patient, and then you arrive to the scene as fast as possible?

K: Exactly. We’re given as much information as the dispatcher has received, although often we have to wait until we arrive to see what actually awaits us at the scene.

TT: What is the worst call you can receive?

K: I find old ladies particularly hard to visit—they remind me of my grandmother and it’s so sad to see them alone. To be honest, elderly people are always a challenge. They need your help but often they are just lonely and want to talk to you. Seizures are also difficult and intense, especially when it’s a child or baby.

We see lots of awful things on a daily basis, but it’s our job to work as efficiently and effectively as possible. Being a little cold-hearted, ironically, makes it easier to be a better paramedic.

TT: That sounds rather intense—some shifts must be so emotionally and mentally draining. How do you unwind?

K: We’re offered therapy and counselling. This is especially valuable if we’ve been involved in a particularly harrowing incident. We also have a great support system amongst the paramedics; we talk a lot and help each other through the difficult days. Although I’m not going to lie—after some shifts I just want to call my Mum!

TT: What’s the best jobs you can be called to?

K: It would also have to be the old ladies! Last week we got called to an elderly Italian lady who didn’t speak a word of English. I told her a joke using a translator app I have on my phone and it made her day!

TT: How long will you spend with one patient?

K: On average we spend about 90 minutes. It really depends on whether they have to be taken to hospital or not. Nowadays most paramedics have medical degrees and we’re trained to deal with as many scenarios as possible at the incident. This is not only aiming to reduce pressure on the A&E (accident and emergency) departments, but also where possible we want to keep patients at home. Other people perhaps don’t need an ambulance, and it’s our job to deem whether it’s a necessary use of resources.

TT: How often are you called out to something that is not an emergency?

K: Unfortunately far too often. It’s a frustrating waste of resources someone else may be in need of. We’ll be called for a stomach-ache or a broken ankle because they think an ambulance will eliminate them having to wait at A&E, which just isn’t the case. It’s difficult to assess someone over the phone so sometimes on arrival it’s apparent to us they’ve exaggerated their symptoms just to get an ambulance.

TT: What is your ambulance equipped with?

K: An incredible amount of equipment! Everything from masks to airways, adrenaline to cannulas. During training we’re told, ‘You’re not a master of anything, you’re a jack of all trades,’ meaning we really have to be prepared for every eventuality. We’re not in hospital with a doctor to rely on. There’s a call line if we need advice, but we’re responsible for making the decision of the best way to treat each individual patient.

TT: How does it feel driving on a blue light?

K: It’s an adrenaline rush, especially when you’re heading towards an incident and you’re not sure what to expect. To be honest not that many patients need blues to be taken to hospital; mostly we drive at normal speed.

TT: What else gets your heart racing?

K: At a serious accident the adrenaline really kicks in. We’re prepared for every eventuality—that’s a key element of our job.

TT: Do you often work with the other 999 emergency forces?

K: We see the police perhaps 1 in 8 calls and the fire brigade a little less. It, of course, depends. If there is a big incident, all the emergency services will be there. We work together closely and have radio contact in case anyone has a question or needs back-up. We see them more on a night shift, especially Fridays and Saturdays.

TT: As paramedics do you come across a lot of drink and drugs incidences?

K: It’s a huge problem; it’s definitely putting more pressure on us. Drink-related accidents used to be more exclusive to Friday and Saturday nights, although now they’re becoming common throughout the week as well. We also attend a lot of overdoses as drug use increases in the country. We receive bulletins if a certain drug is becoming more prevalent, with tips and advice and symptoms to look for.

TT: That sounds intense. On the whole, how do patients treat you?

K: It seems to change daily! I would say it is pretty much 50/50. Obviously we see people often at their worst but we certainly do meet some characters. An 89-year-old man gave me his phone number the other day! You have good days and bad days, like in any job.

TT: What does your family think of your career choice?

K: They’re very happy and proud! They’ve been extremely supportive throughout my degree, and although they worry about me working in extreme scenarios, they know it’s all experience helping me to become a better paramedic.

TT: Do you ever watch medical dramas such as the UK’s “Casualty” or America’s “Grey’s Anatomy”?

K: Sometimes, but I spend the whole time shouting, “It’s not like that!” It’s entertaining, but the details are never correct.[With] something as common as a cardiac arrest, they never get the ECG accurate. It’s not real!

TT: What does the future hold for you?

K: This is 100% the job for me—I love it! I plan on working a few more years at the level I am to gain more experience. I’m then keen to return to university to study a master’s to become an advanced paramedic. Working for the ambulance service is very physically intense, especially on your back with the lifting of patients and carrying equipment. Most paramedics work for the service for 15 to 20 years and then make the natural progression to working in a GP (general practice).Others go to work in police custody or on an oil rig. Thankfully there’s lots of options for us which is great.

TT: One last question, can you describe your job as a paramedic in 5 words?

K: Crazy, eventful, amazing, exhausting, exciting

TT: Fantastic! Thank you so much for your time today and also the hard work and energy you put into your job. Keep up the good work!

K: It was my pleasure to chat with you!


Have a medical emergency? She'll come running

If you have an emergency while in the UK you should call the 999 emergency services. If it's a medical emergency they will send an ambulance to you with paramedics. One of those paramedics might be Katy. She recently graduated with a bachelor's of science degree and shared with us what it's like to be a paramedic.

Her days are very varied, but most calls early in the morning are elderly people who fall down or have a cardiac arrest during the night. Katy loves the variety and says she can't imagine working 9-5 in an office. "It's not just the life- saving part I love. I really enjoy meeting people and learning about them."

She says the training was a lot of hard work, but also amazing. For three years she alternated between university studying and on-placement work. Working a 37.5+ hour week plus writing essays and coursework was intense, although it was worth it! she says.

So how does it work? When you have a medical emergency you call 999 and the switchboard operator dispatches the ambulance that is closest to the patient's location. There are two paramedics in each ambulance and although the dispatcher gives them all the information available, they really don 't know what
to expect until they arrive on the scene.

Nowadays most paramedics have medical degrees and are trained to deal with as many scenarios as possible at the incident. Sometimes they also work with the police and the fire brigade. On average they spend 90 minutes with a patient. Unfortunately they are also often called for non-emergency situations such as a stomach-ache or a broken ankle.

Katy loves her job and her family is very happy and proud of her career choice. She plans to work for a few more years at this level to gain more experience. Then she wants to return to university to study a master’s and become an advanced paramedic.



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Have a medical emergency? She’ll come running



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Intermediate: Idiom: Keep mum

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London Paramedic

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