Act One: We take a call to a man collapsed in the street. The location is given as o/s Co-op beside bench – and this is enough to tell me that Michael has made it up town again.
Michael is in the Top Ten of our regular callers. I know all his details off by heart; I hardly need ask him any questions at all these days. Fifty-seven years old. Suffers from Motor Neurone Disease and alcoholism, is (approximately) mobile with a zimmer. Once a week he will buy a packet of sandwiches, some crisps and a bottle of vodka, drag himself either to the bench in front of the Co-op or a bus stop outside the railway station, drink the bottle of vodka, eat the sandwiches and fall to the floor. His difficulty in speaking is made worse by the alcohol, of course, and by the vast, twiggy hedge of a beard that obscures the lower half of his face and the top half of his body. He can be aggressive, but the punches, should he be in a bad mood and throw one, are like his words – without focus or real intent. He tries his best to insult you. The swear words come spittling out through his crooked yellow teeth, and his eyes flicker from side to side.
A teenager waves us over to the bench and I can see – yes – it is Michael lying there. Today he is wearing pyjamas under his ex-army greatcoat, which is a variation. I thank the boy for calling us, and then we set to picking Michael up and on to the bench. Rae fetches a blanket from the vehicle and drapes it over his shoulders. He sits Rae like a doomed prophet, white robed and bearded on the bench, grinding out his profane prayers to anyone close enough to listen.
And so we face the usual problem. This is not a medical emergency. This is really a matter for the police – drunk and disorderly. But we know that if we request the police via Control, we could be waiting here for a long time. And if Control let the police know who the patient is, we could be waiting here for ever. But the other option of a trip to hospital and a seat in the waiting room until such time as the patient sobers up and makes his own way home – well, this has been done so many times in the past, I’m worried that the A&E charge nurse will have security throw us all out. However, if we leave Michael here as he is, he will only fall over again, someone else will call for an ambulance, and resources will be tied up even more. So, making the best of a rather tedious job, we decide to take him in. When we get to hospital I talk up the fact that Michael was borderline hypothermic. The charge nurse gives me a look that even the most optimistic interpretation would be: ‘I’m watching you’. But they accept him. What else can they do? Michael has a social worker, and various carers have tried their hand and left in tears soon after, but short of a miracle, or a ball and chain, this expensive routine looks set to play over and over without relief for years.
Act Two: A week later we take a call to a man collapsed in the street. The location is given as o/s Railway station, bus stop. Rae says it’s Michael, but I say I’m not so sure. I say I have a feeling that this will be a resus in the street. I snap my gloves heroically. The station comes into view. It is Michael. Two off-duty nurses have called the ambulance. One of them even works in A&E. ‘What else could I do?’ she says, helplessly. And this is, of course, the problem. We take him in without even considering the police, as he seems less responsive than normal. But all his observations are fine. We pass him on a corridor trolley throughout the day as we come and go in the hospital, snoring.
Act Three: Two months later we take a call to a man collapsed at home. The call has originated from social services, and the address seems familiar. Neither Rae nor I have been there before, but it just seems to ring a bell. As we turn into the courtyard of the block of flats, Rae says: Michael. Of course – and then I think: This is a first, collapsing at home. We jump out of the vehicle and go over to the two people standing by the door. One is a carer, and the other is a manager from Social Services.
‘The last contact we have with Michael is two weeks ago,’ says the manager, fiddling with a knob on her radio. ‘I’m just waiting for someone to get back to me about key holders. But the police should be here soon.’
The carer tells us this is her first day. She says she knocked on the door, looked through the window, but then wasn’t sure what to do. She bites the quick of her thumb. ‘He’s supposed to be here.’
Rae gets on the radio and tells Control the situation. I have a look through the window but a filthy set of curtains hides everything. Rae comes over and says that Control have given the go-ahead to break in, and confirms that the police will be here in about five minutes.
I love pushing doors in. It’s a perk of the job. I draw myself up and back, and then give it a good kick. It bows impressively. On the second kick it flies backwards in a satisfying crack of splintering wood, and we go in. The smell wraps around us along the filthy hallway before we see the legs just poking around the side of the bedroom door. He is lying on his side on the floor. He has been dead for some time – at least for the two weeks the manager mentioned. If the flat had been properly heated the smell would have been a lot worse, but as it is, Michael has been doggedly pursuing the various stages of decay, as slowly but inevitably as his shuffling walk up town with the vodka and sandwiches. The social services manager has followed us in with her radio crackling loudly, but she about turns and strides back out with an ‘Urph’. We follow her. Back outside in the yard the carer asks me: ‘Is he all right?’ and I tell her that unfortunately, no, he’s died. A police car turns into the yard. The carer says: ‘What do I do now? This is all new to me.’
I tell her, I’m as surprised as she is.