At eighteen, I was the sort of squeamish person that everyone laughed at, as I'd feel faint at the mere smell of alcohol gel at the entrance to a hospital of doctor's surgery. The mere thought of visiting someone in hospital would give me a cold shiver down my spine. The threat of a needle would be enough to tip me over the edge into hysteria. Just a few years later, I joined the world of EMS. I guess you could say I got over my squeamishness. Although I still hate anything to do with teeth, dentists or anything in between. Don't get me wrong, some of my best friends are dentists. But only when I meet them outside of a quarter-mile radius of any dental surgery.
The London Ambulance Service was my introduction into a world that I could never imagine, and my chance to discover that being squeamish is much the same as any other fear - the best way to overcome it is to face it head on.
At first, as an EMT, I performed my duties almost by rote. Unthinking actions, following the script that had been drilled into my head throughout the initial weeks of training. But then, after a short while, as my confidence grew, I wanted to actually treat people, not just patients. I wanted to understand more about what I was doing and why I was doing it. And through this, despite the somewhat morbid attraction that many in the world of EMS have to trauma, I grew to love the heart just as much. I would sit and look at ECGs (replace C with K depending on which part of the world you happen to be in), try to delve into their mysteries and unravel the secrets that they held within the squiggly lines.
Cardiac patients fascinated me. Within a short time of me joining the LAS, a new system was introduced for patients experiencing a heart attack, or STEMI. These patients would be diagnosed by the ambulance crew as having an acute STEMI and immediately conveyed to a cardiac unit for angiogram and angioplasty if required. Many patients have benefited from this life saving procedure, thanks not only to the skill of the doctors in the hospital, but to the skill of EMS providers in the field. More than once, having delivered a STEMI patient into the hands of the cardiac teams, we would stay to watch the procedure itself and get to see how the squiggly lines translated back and forth into what was happening on the inside.
London became one of the pioneers in the field, leading the way in training all its staff to analyse ECGs and recognise the immediacy of the STEMI. It was exciting to be a part of something innovative and that was proving a great success.
Recently, a team of paramedics and film-makers joined up, headed across the Atlantic from the USA to London, and joined crews there to see it all in action and share it with the world. Ted Setla and Tom Bouthillet put together a series of short films, taking in EMS systems around the world, with the London Ambulance Service - "The busiest EMS system in the world" - taking pride of place.
CodeSTEMI (a hashtag with this name is also used on Twitter) is well worth the watch. In just under half an hour, the viewer is introduced into the world of the ambulance service and invited into the lives of people who have survived a threat that just over a decade ago would have meant a much higher likelihood of death. It concentrates on the patients, on the crews and on the system that has helped raise the chances of survival of a cardiac arrest from single-figure percentages to somewhere over 30 percent in just a few years.
The film doesn't sugar-coat reality, but it does show the human side of EMS, from the viewpoints of both patient and provider. And in these days where everything seems to depend on what can be done to bring down costs, whatever the cost, it's refreshing to see how people with a passion can still help to make a difference.
It's been a year, almost to the day, since my last shift with the LAS. I'm proud to have them on my resumé, and smile when I look back, even as I'm still looking forward. It'll be strange to be the new-boy again when I finally wade through the sea of red-tape that is gradually running out (I hope), but at least this time I'll be able to do it with a decade's worth of experience.
And I'll have all the inspiration I need by just looking back over my shoulder.