Sunday, 4 April 2010

Cul-de-Sac

The cold temperature in the dingy basement flat matched the frost-bitten air outside. Small icicles surrounded the windows, the only light was that of a lone candle, battling to break through the dark of another winter's night. The kitchen, bathroom, living room, even the bedroom, all crammed into a flat no bigger than an average family car.
*
The fire-call seemed straight forward. A ground floor apartment, probably a kitchen fire. There was smoke billowing from the broken windows, but the Fire Brigade seemed to be in control now. The ambulance's occupants enjoying the respite that these types of calls often bring. We're only there "just in case". In case one of the Brigade are hurt, or in case any occupants are found and need treatment.
*
In the middle of it all, surrounded by the barest of bare essentials and wrapped in layers of blankets, sat Ray, looking almost double his middle-aged years. Hardly more than a skeleton wearing a thin layer of skin, with sunken cheeks and saddened eyes, he was clearly embarrassed to let us in. "I don't know where to turn any more", he started. It was tough to work out if his speech was shaky because of the cold, his fear, or a medical condition. "My family have either died or left me to do the same. I have no help. No gas. No electricity. I steal or beg to eat, and only keep warm by wrapping up in layers. I have no light and no heating. I just need to be somewhere warm".
*
The white-helmeted Station Officer had come over to let us know that they didn't think that there were any occupants, but that they'd still like us to stand by. "Hang fire", he says, his grin indicating clearly an intentional pun. "We've still got guys in breathing apparatus. Once they're all out and OK, we'll let you go." We're in no rush. We have chocolate. We have drinks. We have hours left of our shift, and now we have a break. The music's turned up just a little more.
*
Cases such as these are rare, but not as rare as I'd like to think, or hope. In a country famed for its welfare, cases like these have no right to exist, and where they do, they should be easily and quickly solved. Many, too many of them are unknown, shame and fear preventing those suffering from doing anything about it. Ray had had no heating or light for several months. The utility companies seemed just to give up on getting their money, cut off the supplies, and never bothered to check if anyone was still living there. There was wax everywhere from where he'd lit the candles, bags full of rubbish that he said he still had to go through to see if he could find anything worth salvaging for food, and filth all over the space that hardly qualified as a kitchen.
*
One more update from the Station Officer. The last of his crews was now going into the building, to ensure that it was well ventilated and assess when it would be safe for the other residents in the vicinity to return back to their own homes. "A few more minutes guys", he says, talking over the noise of the generators, the pumps and our radio. It's all now a matter of minutes before we'll be back on our way to the reality of ambulance work.
*
One thing was for certain. Ray couldn't stay here any longer. Irrelevant of any medical need - he was going to hospital. At least there he'd be warm, fed, showered possibly, and most importantly there would be time to get the system in place for him to be cared for long-term. It wasn't an ideal solution - just the start of one. He was unsurprisingly hypothermic, his pulse was low, his blood pressure too. It was surprising he was still sat up. We brought the chair in for him, but he refused it, wanting to salvage his last vestige of pride, and chose to walk to the ambulance. He got as far as the door and caved in.
*
Then came the shout. "There's someone here! He's not breathing! Get the paramedics!" We both hear the Brigade's radio over the music channel we're listening to in the ambulance, and jump out of our seats. A Fireman's Lift is given a whole new meaning when you actually see a lifeless body being carried out by a fireman.
*
The journey to hospital was uneventful, we left him in their care, filled in the multitude of forms to get social services involved as quickly as possible. Something must have worked somewhere. Not long after that, I had a call to the same building, to see an estate agent's To Let sign outside. I had a peek through the window and saw that the place had been cleaned up, was brightly painted, and now just waiting for a new resident. Ray was nowhere to be seen.
*
He was placed on our trolley bed, and the resus started in earnest. His face was covered in soot, his skin cracked, his eyes glazed over. Someone started on compressing his chest, trying to beat a rhythm into his arrested heart, whilst I was in charge of using the bag and mask, to breath some oxygen into his burnt lungs. I removed the mask from his face and prepared to intubate him, so that the oxygen we were pushing in to him at random with a mask hit exactly the right spot via a tube.
*
I spoke to the sister in charge to find out what had happened in the interim. She told me that he'd been moved to a ward and would probably spend a few days in hospital. Social services had been contacted and the system's cogs were turning, trying to find the most suitable answer to his problems. For some reason this call bugged me, so I followed up again a few days later to find that he'd been rehoused. I hoped it was clean, warm, and had 1st world utilities, instead of 3rd world conditions. I hoped he was on the road to recovery.
*
One of the bystanders, forced out of their neighbouring apartment by the fire, told us that he'd only moved in a couple of weeks previously, that he seemed pleasant, but kept himself to himself. She didn't really know any more about him. As I took the mask away, I saw a face I couldn't forget. I hadn't noticed in the first moments he'd been thrown at us. Ray's face, covered in smoke and contorted in pain, his eyes, once saddened, now looked back at me again, this time glazed and lifeless. His chance at finding a road to recovery reaching no more than a cul-de-sac.

2 comments:

Tom said...

An awful outcome. I'm sorry you had to be there..

Mrs. N. Strange said...

Your writing is amazing...I always feel like I am there, at the scene, seeing and feeling exactly what you are. In fact, I have found myself referring to memories of your posts on various scenes that I find myself on and they have helped me get through.

Thank you so much for sharing, as painful as it is. We are here with you, as you allow us to be.