Vera is eighty two.
At least once a week for the past six years or more, Vera has been calling 999 for an ambulance. And getting one.
I’ve been out to Vera a half dozen times, but even though I know her personal details off by heart, her motivation is still as incomprehensible as the voice she puts on – a febrile twittering, strangely at odds with her appearance, like hearing a bulldog squeak instead of bark.
To say she does it for attention doesn’t seem enough. I think there must be something else she gets from the whole procedure, from the pressing of the three nines to the sound of the diesel truck pulling up below her window; from the sound of the lift arriving on her floor to the ringing of the bell and the clunking and fumbling as the key safe is opened; from the sound of heavy boots walking in to the medical shtick of the cuff, the monitor, the SATS probe, the thermometer; from the taking of the history to the collecting together of the drugs, the setting up of the carry chair to the three minute ride to hospital, from the wheeling in through the automatic doors to the pat slide onto the bed – something from all that ritual of fuss, something semi-magical, that feeds her ambulance addiction and keeps her coming back for more.
Vera obviously doesn’t like the hospital side of things, though. She’s barely half an hour on an A and E bed before she’s bum-shuffling down to the end, hopping off, striding through the department, bad-mouthing the staff as she hurries outside to car-jack a taxi home.
Notorious. Prolific. Loathed or loved, depending on your mood.
It’s not as if I don’t understand the loved aspect. If a crew is dealing with Vera, in her well-kempt flat, they’re temporarily sheltered from the potential horrors of other patients. Vera doesn’t live in a crack house. She’s not drunk and throwing up everywhere. She’s continent, cute, biddable. But just lately I’ve stopped thinking about Vera as a quirky character with lovable ways and started thinking about her as a damned nuisance.
Maybe she’s my bellwether, my emotional compass. Maybe Vera is pointing to the exit. Because now when I read her address on the screen I don’t see a lovable rogue. I see a person who is wasting resources that might be needed for a genuine emergency.
I guess she’s unhappy. I wish I could understand what the problem was so I could help come up with a solution. But probably because there is nothing obviously wrong – her flat is warm and comfortable, the doctors have deemed her mentally competent, her health is reasonable and well-provided for, materially she has everything you could want – because it’s difficult to identify the problem, it’s difficult to come up with a solution. And anyway, there isn’t a procedure for dealing with nuisance callers. They’re treated exactly the same as someone ringing for the first time, which flies in the face of common sense, but stands nonetheless. All in all it amounts to an endless procession of ambulances to this address.
Tonight when I step out of the truck I feel as if a valve has been loosened in my heel and all my patience has run out over the road.
‘I don’t think I can do this any more,’ I say to Frank as we walk up to the main entrance.
‘Yes you can.’
‘No I can’t.’
‘Yes you can. Look. Someone told me this technique for dealing with stuff you find difficult.’
‘I can’t wait.’
‘No. Come on. Listen. What you do – you think about someone you admire already, someone you think of as really cool and competent. Okay? Picture them strongly in your mind. Got it? Now – all you do is, you imagine what they would do if they were here, and you do the same.’
I tap in the code. We let ourselves into the building. Up in the lift, to the front door, to the key safe.
And into the flat.
Vera is in the living room, artfully placed in front of her armchair, kneeling on one leg, squeaking that her legs have given way.
We help her back into the chair, then I drop myself onto the sofa and throw the board aside.
‘You can’t keep doing this, Vera.’
‘You can’t keep calling the ambulance out.’
‘I’m sick. My legs have gone.’
‘No they haven’t.’
‘I’m not taking you to hospital, Vera.’
She stares at me.
‘I’ll put in a complaint against you,’ she says.
‘I don’t care. I’ll be in good company.’
‘My legs have gone. I’ve got pain all over. My chest hurts.’
‘No it doesn’t, Vera.’
‘How would you know?’
‘Vera. I want you to be happy and well, I really do. But this can’t go on, can it?’
I get out my phone.
‘What are you doing?’ she says.
‘I’m phoning Control. I’m going to speak to an officer.’
‘I will complain,’ she says. ‘You have to help me.’
Frank sits down on another chair, folds his arms and nods pleasantly.
‘Just a minute whilst we find out what’s happening,’ he says.
When I eventually get through to the Duty Manager he asks me how I’m doing.
‘Not well,’ I say. ‘Not well at all. I’m with Vera.’
‘Yes. I saw.’
‘I hardly know what to say.’
‘Seriously. I don’t know what to say. I haven’t the words. I think I’m losing my mind. I simply don’t understand why something isn’t done. I don’t understand why we keep sending ambulances.’
‘Yes, yes. I know what you mean. But we have to be sure everything’s okay, because one day she might really be unwell.’
‘So on that basis I could call the Fire Brigade every day from now until I’m ninety, and they’d be happy to attend because one day there might be a fire.’
‘It’s not like the fire brigade.’
‘It’s just not that simple.’
‘And whilst we’re tied up here we’re not available to help someone who might really need us.’
‘I hear what you’re saying, Spence. And I sympathise. But our hands are tied. Look. I’ll tell you what. Check Vera over. If she seems okay, don’t take her to hospital. If she calls again, we’ll tell her she’s had her attendance today and she won’t be getting anyone else.’
‘That’s something at least.’
‘When you get back to base – if you get back to base – put all this in writing and send it to the COM. It’ll all build into a case of sorts, and then maybe something’ll get done.’
‘I’ll do that.’
Vera is frowning at me as I hang up.
‘What’d they say?’ she says.
I open my bag.
‘Vera? I’m giving you a quick check-up, then we’re leaving.’
‘I want to go to hospital.’
‘I don’t think you need to.’
‘But I want to.’
Her obs are fine.
She squeaks as we close the door.
By the time we’re back in the truck, the radio sounds.
‘Guess who’s on the phone?’ says the Dispatcher. ‘But don’t worry. We’ve put her through to the clinical desk.’
An hour later we’re at the hospital, handing over our latest patient.
‘Vera’s been on the phone to Reception and the A&E desk,’ says one of the nurses. ‘She’s wild tonight.’
Back outside, the crew that were here before us clear up and get sent a job immediately.
I climb back in the cab, ring Control and ask to speak to the Duty Manager.
‘Hi Spence,’ he says. ‘I bet I know why you’re calling.’
‘It’s just that I notice another crew has gone out to Vera. I thought you said you wouldn’t be sending anyone else tonight?’
‘Well – she kept calling and calling and we kept bouncing her into the long grass. But in the end we thought we’d better send someone just to check nothing’s happened since you were there.’
‘I think we should start sub-contracting these difficult cases out,’ says Frank, passing me a cup of coffee through the window. ‘How far west do you suppose the Mafia reach?’