IT IS, at best, a troubled relationship. We have in this country a prof-essional group made up of individuals we all hope we never get to meet.
If we’re forced into a situation where we have no choice but to meet them, and if, in that scenario, they arrive a little late, the tardiness of the arrival of these people we didn’t want to encounter in the first place reduces us to terror and outrage in equal amounts. When they arrive, we tolerate them but regard them as stand-ins rather than the real thing, assuming we’re in a condition to regard them as anything. When we part from them, typically within an hour of the first greeting, we forget them so totally that, in the majority of cases, if they were lined up a month later in one of those police parades, we wouldn’t know them from Adam.
If someone wants to put up an award for the Least Appreciated Professionals in Irish Life, first time around, that award has to go to the men and women of our national ambulance service.
Not that their tongues are hanging out for an award. For the most part, ambulance service paramedics are happy enough with anonymity, although one of them recently got mad as hell in my hearing over a TV programme featuring the helicopter search and rescue guys. The programme, according to my informant, had made heroes out of the chopper lads, and fair dues to them. But it had glossed over as if it were nothing the contribution made by the ambulance guys in reaching, stabilising, and transporting the particular patient so the chopper guys could play up, up, and away with him. This, the ambulance man said, was typical of the way he and his colleagues are viewed by media.
“The firefighters arrive and they pull someone out of the burning building and next thing the burn victim’s being treated in A&E,” he said bitterly. “It’s like they just magicked themselves into hospital. Any fool could have done that bit.” “Or the Garda deliver a baby at the Kinsale Rd roundabout,” I suggested, “and the following day’s coverage features the guards, rather than the ambulance paramedics who did the tidying up and the transport.”
Not quite the same, he fair mindedly replied. So many babies get born at the Kinsale Rd roundabout it doesn’t really generate that much coverage any more.
But I was beginning to see the problem. The ambulance service gets sandwiched between other, more glamorous and exciting services, or it gets viewed, on its own, as nothing more than a transport business that never makes positive headlines, registering on the public mind only when it makes an exceptionally late arrival.
This isn’t the way it’s seen in other countries. In Australia, for example, where they do regular surveys to find out how particular professions are viewed by the general public (as opposed to here, where we do constant surveys to find out how one political party is viewed, relative to the other political parties) people working for the Oz ambulance service come top of the class, kiss teacher, almost every time. Here, by contrast, respondents to such a survey would have to be heavily prompted before even thinking of its frontliners as potential heroes. And, once prompted, might not readily accord the paramedics hero status.
HERO status in this country is freely accorded to victims who have risen above circumstances which might otherwise have crushed them. It’s accorded fairly freely to individual members of the medical profession, although it’s more likely to land on heart surgeons and cancer specialists than urinary tract specialists or gerontologists. This is not to say that those whose waterworks or other essential parts get fixed by a consultant are not hugely grateful for their intervention, just that they may be marginally less likely to go public with their gratitude, appreciation and permanent loyalty. For obvious reasons. It’s OK to be on the Late, Late Show saying Joe Bloggs restarted your heart. Going on the programme to praise a consultant that got you peeing again has less appeal, somehow.
Lots of us would happily go public with our gratitude, appreciation and permanent loyalty to members of the ambulance service, but can’t because we don’t know them from a hole in the wall. When I had a spectacular car crash, for example, the speed and expertise of the guys who arrived meant the difference between life and death to me. Do I have their names? No. Not that I wouldn’t have asked, but I was a bit unconscious at the time.
On the other hand, some of the rituals through which ambulance guys have to go must, now and again, be irritating to the public. I was extremely grateful to see an ambulance respond when the man in my life stopped breathing. I was even more grateful when a grizzled paramedic appeared with an attitude that suggested he’d been there, done this stuff a million times before, and could be trusted to get it right. I got considerably less grateful when he started to ask the patient questions. It wasn’t that I resented him asking questions, although, to be perfectly upfront with you, I wanted him to make with the oxygen mask and the stretcher much more than I wanted him to make with the speech. But the worst of it was the questions he went through.
Just to put you completely in context, let me tell you that the man in my life had been utterly silent from the moment the bad thing happened to his lungs. He had not discussed the weather, life, the universe or the political situation. He had not saved his breath to cool his porridge. He had saved what breath he could save to keep alive, and was demonstrably not doing a good job on the latter task, him at this point being the colour of a sun-bleached slate. But he nodded when the ambulance guy asked him if he had the sensation of a heavy weight on his chest. Then the ambulance guy asked him about the nature of the heavy weight on his chest. If the heavy weight was a human being, the ambulance guy went on, what kind of human being would it be? Would it be a baby? A toddler? A teenager? At this point, I wanted to yell that it was a chubby First Holy Communicant weighed down by the cash handed over by relatives and friends, but I stayed silent while the patient established that his breathing equipment was being sat on by a heavy toddler. (You know the obesity situation. Even mythical toddlers with nothing better to do than sit on other people’s chests are a bit on the hefty side, these days.) Once he got that established, the ambulance officer turned into a hero whose reassurances were all the more credible because he had cut to the weight-on-chest data search before he offered any comfort.
The ambulance service may be noisy, with its wee-waw sirens, but it is also paradoxically silent. It is infinitely flexible in the face of the uniqueness of each patient and challenge. Its people are skilled, competent and caring in a concentrated and necessarily transient way.
Lots of much less essential services are revered, yet this one is taken for granted. Pity.
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