Ambulance Stories (47)

PTSD

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a subject much in the news these days. It can affect anyone, in a variety of situations; from a soldier returning from a combat zone, to someone who witnessed a bad traffic accident. I found this recent definition of the condition on the NHS website.

The type of events that can cause PTSD include:
serious road accidents
violent personal assaults, such as sexual assault, mugging or robbery
prolonged sexual abuse, violence or severe neglect
witnessing violent deaths
military combat
being held hostage
terrorist attacks
natural disasters, such as severe floods, earthquakes or tsunamis
PTSD can develop immediately after someone experiences a disturbing event or it can occur weeks, months or even years later.
PTSD is estimated to affect about 1 in every 3 people who have a traumatic experience, but it’s not clear exactly why some people develop the condition and others don’t.’

You notice that there is nothing in that list specifically about working for the Emergency Services. I suppose that if you choose to embark on a career in the Ambulance Service, or the Fire Service, and The Police, you should anticipate the likelihood of having to deal with a lot of unpleasant things, and that you will be witnessing things that others never see. The same applies to those who choose a career in the Armed Forces, but they are on the list, given the extreme nature of their role I presume. It would appear that being the victim of something, rather than just witnessing it, or dealing with the outcome as part of your job, is the defining factor here. So how does this manifest itself, what are the tell-tale signs? This is again from the NHS website.

Signs and symptoms
‘Someone with PTSD will often relive the traumatic event through nightmares and flashbacks, and may experience feelings of isolation, irritability and guilt.
They may also have problems sleeping, such as insomnia, and find concentrating difficult.
These symptoms are often severe and persistent enough to have a significant impact on the person’s day-to-day life.’

For more than twenty years, I witnessed all sorts of unspeakable things working on an Ambulance in Central London. Countless dead bodies, attempted resuscitation of people of all ages, including babies. Finding corpses that had been neglected and were decaying, traumatic limb amputations, decapitations, murders, sexual assaults, and violent crimes. Sufferers of terminal illnesses, people who had jumped from a great height to their deaths, or under trains, or sometimes into water. Suicide by drug overdose, death from drug addiction, victims of shootings and stabbings, others seriously injured in road accidents. I saw them all, and dealt with them accordingly. There was a lighter side. Delivering babies, chatting to interesting elderly people, the banter with colleagues and hospital staff. But generally, it was mostly unpleasant, and often downright nasty.

We were threatened and attacked too. I was physically assaulted a few times, and verbally abused daily. I have been threatened with violence, had knives waved at me, and on two occasions, even a gun was brandished. We were fair game, and enjoyed little respect. Writing the stories about my experiences on this blog has brought back many recollections of my time there; and as memories, they are mostly good ones, surprisingly. When you are dealing with the victims of terrorist bombings for example, you don’t really have time to think about stress, or trauma to the mind. You just do the job you signed up for, and move on to the next one. The day after that, you turn up for work, and deal with whatever is thrown at you, starting all over again, from scratch.

I did my last shift in an Ambulance in November 2001, before moving on to pastures new, as a Communications Officer with the Metropolitan Police. I can honestly say that I didn’t miss the job at all, just some of the people. I joined at the right time for me, and left when it no longer felt right. Since retiring in 2012, I often have vivid dreams. About 70% of those dreams happen to be related to working in an ambulance. Two nights ago, I woke from one such dream at around 3AM. I had been driving an ambulance, and I had got lost, unable to find the location of the job I was required to go to. Rather than being in London, I was on the coast somewhere, driving near the edge of a cliff. The person beside me was unfamiliar, not one of my old crew-mates at all. This is a recurring dream, though often the person with me is someone I know well, or a person that I could never have known at the time, but have met since. They are not unpleasant dreams, but they usually concern lots of driving, and getting nowhere fast. Perhaps someone skilled in interpretation of dreams can explain them, I know that I cannot.

I suppose I always suspected that PTSD might be the legacy of a third of my life spent attending 999 calls. But it wasn’t. I didn’t get it, though some others surely did. I was one of the lucky ones.

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33 thoughts on “Ambulance Stories (47)

  1. I never drove an ambulance, but I did drive cab, and I’ve had those dreams–and not necessarily about cab driving, but always about looking for something and being in all the wrong places for it.

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  2. Definitely lucky Pete. Reading your stories I’ve often wondered how you do it. I’ve been told by various people I should consider training in counselling because I’m good at advice (when I have time to compose it) but as you know I’m not great at taking it lol. Anyway I considered it briefly but know I’m affected by things very easily and would take it home at the end of the day and that’s without dead bodies and witnessing traumatic events! I applaud and respect you for doing that job.
    As for the dream… I used to have driving ones (before I had my licence) where I would drive the entire journey focused on changing gears and working pedals. Id make it in one piece but be mentally exhausted when I woke up. I believe it was to do with control.

    It’s like when someone does something on pure instinct and then goes into shock after thinking what could have happened. Perhaps your mind is finally catching up with your change of pace and feeling a little lost and out of character? Maybe the dangerous road represents the crazy unpredictable situations you encountered and took control of and perhaps the familiar passenger is your old self/inner strength reminding you that regardless of what was thrown at you you did it

    Deep enough? Lol

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    1. Not a bad stab at dream analysis Sophie. I think that you might be right about the counselling. If you have a tendency to get too involved, you would end up taking it home with you, and worrying about those cases that were unresolved. If you still want to do something, how about Art Therapy? This can be applied with Autism, Stroke Patients, and many medical and psychological cases.
      I think you would be really good at that!
      As ever, Pete. XX

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  3. Hats off to you Pete, as someone else said it’s a profession of the unsung hero and you have my respect. And to think when I saw the title I was looking forward to a light hearted, humour filled decapitation!

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  4. All I can say, after reading your account, is God Bless You – Pete.

    Thank you for being there for those who needed you so badly.

    Our world would be 10 times more tragic, without people like you.

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  5. I have a nephew who works on an Ambulance crew. I know he’s seen things that I couldn’t bear to witness and I admire that he has a mind that can process these things and not bring him down so low he can’t get back out. I think that people who do this kind of work are unsung heroes.

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  6. Sometimes Pete, the bravery that you (and those in similar professions) showed and show every day becomes almost routine but it nevertheless is most courageous and must almost certainly effect those individuals to an obviously greater or lesser degree. You have come through very strongly but I doubt you could have got through scot-free my friend. I only mention this so that you might allow yourself some elasticity whenever it may be needed.
    Love and all the best from sunny Edinburgh (temporary!).

    PS The ‘utter loss of control whilst driving a car’ dream . . aaahhrrgghh . . help.
    Vision goes, foot controls, steering . . very scary and yes, recurring!

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    1. Edinburgh, very nice Ro.
      Thanks for the comment. I have no doubt that there are some things that must have affected me, but I remain lucky that they have not surfaced to any worrying extent.
      Your driving dream? It’s not a dream mate, you always drove like that!
      Love as always, Pete + Julie. x

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  7. Ah, dreams! I commented to a friend recently that I no longer dream (or rather, have no recollection of dreaming). And now, suddenly I have started recalling them! And usually related to something that has happened recently.

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  8. Thanks for sharing your story Pete. You had the stamina and the heart to serve well. Speaking of dreams, I have recurring dreams too, it’s always about my grandparents’ ancestral house. We grew up there during the early years, happy memories of childhood with my maternal grandmother. She lived with us when we transferred to our own house when I was in grade school until we transferred here in Manila to attend high school. Strange isn’t it, sometimes when you wake up, your dreams stay with you but at other times, you don’t remember a thing.

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    1. I wonder if they stay with you when you need to remember them, and when you don’t it’s as if you haven’t had any. They are strange things indeed.
      Best wishes from England, Pete.

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  9. Dreams are a fascinating subject. I think there is still much to be explained about them. You have certainly been through a lot, Pete, and I think you deserve a lot of respect for it. You seem to have weathered it all very well, and that’s very much to your credit.

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    1. Thanks David. I was reading about PTSD the other day, and it seemed to me that I should have got it, but managed to escape. Just as well.
      Perhaps the blogging staves it off?
      Best wishes as always, Pete.

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  10. Dreams are so interesting, I dream a lot. One recurring dream also involves driving, and not being able to stop – I put my foot down hard on the brake, but nothing happens. I figure that means I’m not feeling in control of my life. Being mugged did have an awful effect on me for years, and even now I am hesitant of going to unknown areas alone. I think your job should entitle you to a medal!

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    1. Funny you should say that Jude, as I did get a medal, and it’s quite impressive too. It was for Long Service and Good Conduct, so basically just for turning up…Here’s a picture of what it looks like. (You get a green medal ribbon too, and it comes in a nice box…)
      http://www.worcmedals.com/shop.php?sec=prod&prod=947&title=ambulance-service-long-service-medal-copy&gclid=CJa6t7Cy6sQCFScHwwodvGkAhQ

      I have no idea what my dreams mean at all, as I change my mind about their meaning all the time, so have given up trying to work them out.
      Regards as always, Pete. x

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      1. It’s a lovely medal and you deserved one – working in the ambulance service is not recognised enough. Do you wear it at all? I’m just trying to think of occasions when you might.

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        1. I wore it for about an hour after the presentation, because it made my Mum proud. I don’t have any uniform anymore, obviously, so cannot imagine a time when I might wear it again. It’s in a drawer of my desk, and I do look at it, about once a year. Like most of us in those sort of jobs, we frown on self-publicity to a large degree. x

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