Thursday, February 21, 2008


A girl waves to us from the front door and waits for us there, jiggling impatiently from foot to foot and sucking on a cigarette, watching whilst we haul our bags out of the truck.
‘Come on! He’s upstairs,’ she says, flicking the cigarette off into the garden and hurrying inside. As we cross the threshold the contrast between the crystalline Sunday morning and the muted interior is awful; the air seems to have congealed into a fatty grey smog that barely stirs as we move through it. We pass an empty room – snapshot of a mattress on the floor, rucked grey sheets, bottles – then up into another where a skinny man is lying flat on his back. His t-shirt is pulled up and I can just see from here some trembling movement in his abdomen as he makes tiny efforts to breathe. The woman kneeling beside him sits back on her heels and pushes her beany hat up to look at us.
‘He’s breathing some, but not much,’ she says. ‘He’s injected heroin.’ But his pinpoint pupils and the marks on his arm are clear enough.
I take an airway out of the bag and put it into his mouth whilst Rae hooks a BVM up to the oxygen.
‘When did he inject?’
‘Not long ago. I’m not sure. I wasn’t with him.’
Rae hands me the breathing kit and I start supporting his feeble respirations. She puts together a syringe of narcan – the drug we use to reverse the effects of opiates – pinches up the skin of his upper arm, and jabs him.
‘He wasn’t breathing at all when we found him. He was all horrible and blue. We got him going again, though. I had to give him the kiss of life. I only know how to do it because my baby died and I did it on her.’
Both the girls look sickly, but the one in the beany hat has a truly awful complexion, scooped out and hollow like a teenager raised in the dark. Around us the room is trashed, cans standing on the bare floor where they were placed, clothes in tangled corners, carrier bags of foraged food in various stages of decay – a rotten room junked, every human comfort or effort of control subordinated to the needle.
‘Is he going to die?’
Rae gives him another dose of narcan. Gradually his breathing quickens enough for me to stop bagging him; in another minute or two he moves his head slightly from side to side and starts to gag on the airway. I pull it out. Suddenly he opens his eyes.
‘Hello. It’s the ambulance,’ I say. He stares up at me and frowns, then makes an effort to sit up. We help him. He leans against the bed.
‘Wow,’ he says, then ‘Who are you?’
The woman in the beany hat stands up.
‘We saved your stupid life, you bastard,’ she says, then pushes out of the room and into the bathroom, slamming the door behind her.
‘What’s the matter with her?’ he says, jerking his thumb in her direction like he’s sitting with friends in a pub and someone has just caused a scene.
‘What do you think?’, the other girl says. ‘She lost her baby and now you go off on us.’ She follows her out of the room and starts trying to talk to her through the bathroom door.
‘I don’t even know them,’ he says to us, rubbing his face.
He tells us, without a hint of irony, that he doesn’t do heroin and this was his first hit. He says he doesn’t want to go to hospital, even though we tell him that the effect of the narcan is short-lived, and he might well go unconscious again. Rae completes the paperwork, he signs to say he refuses further treatment, and we pack our kit away. We leave him propped up against the bed.
Back out in the hallway, the bathroom door is open and the first girl is sitting on the side of the bath hugging the second.
‘He says he doesn’t want to go to hospital,’ I say.
‘Surprise, surprise.’
‘He’ll still be at risk for a few hours, so you might keep an eye on him. Give us a call again if anything happens. Apart from that…’ I shrug. The first girl makes an effort of a smile.
‘Thanks for coming so quickly,’ she says.
I tell them I thought they did a good job getting his breathing back. I tell them they probably saved his life.
‘Like he cares,’ she says.
We see ourselves out.


Shade said...

Nicely written.

Drugs are such a waste of so many lives :(

Spence Kennedy said...

Thanks, Emily.

It's weird about drugs. I mean, I understand why people take them (I imagine it's just an extension of why people drink, or get addicted to painkillers) - but with heroin it often seems as if their whole life becomes dedicated to the drug. It's all there is - a tough, all consuming kind of religion - and it doesn't matter what's happening, what's said or done, the only thing is the next hit. For us it's fire-fighting of the lamest kind. Certainly with this guy, his days are numbered. And it's such a shame, because he seemed nice enough!

Thanks for reading the blog, btw.


Unknown said...

Hi Spence,

Haven't posted before - but thought I should just so you know that people appreciate the effort you put into your posts, and the style in which you write them.

This was definetly one that makes people (me at least) think deeply about some of the work you do - reviving people who seem to be happy to kill themselves, just a couple of questions about it though:

1) You make (in my opinion anyway) the girl that lost her baby sound rather blase about it - is that they way she really was (and if so was it drug induced), or am I reading it wrong?

2) Do you really think the man was genuine when he said it was the first time he had taken heroin? I suspect everyone tells a similar story.....

All the best,


Anonymous said...

What made me shake my head in sympathy is that this scene is oh-so-common, isn't it?


Spence Kennedy said...

Hi Jason,
Thanks for your comments. If I made the girl sound blase about her baby dying, it wasn't intentional. I think she felt the loss very keenly. In fact, when the guy came round from all the resuscitative fuss, her overwhelming response was anger, and she had to take herself into the bathroom to calm down. What I was trying to do was present the scene as it unfolded - with her comment about losing her baby ( for me, the most shocking thing about the whole scene) - just one more fact, to put alongside the beer cans and the trash and the foetid air.
I don't think that was his first time with heroin. The track marks in his arm nailed that one. But it's amazing how people will tell you these things despite all the evidence to the contrary, and despite us saying we're not the police and it doesn't make any difference to us.
drunkenspaniel - yep, this is a familiar scene. I've dealt with a dozen respiratory arrests due to heroin so far, one fatal. Quite often the response to being dragged back from the brink is surprisingly casual. Sometimes it's aggressive, as in 'I paid good money for that hit'. Hard to understand mostly, but I suppose if it's a profound experience of perfect peace, then a little more understandable. It all depends what you feel you have to lose.

Judith said...

Hello Spence
Another great post, thanks. Your blog, and others like Tom Reynolds & Inspector Gadget, give a picture of life in the UK that I don't find in the papers or on TV. A real eye-opener for me sitting at my computer in the heart of peaceful rural NZ (surrounded by sheep and cows, not very many people!).

Spence Kennedy said...

Hi Judith,
Thanks for the comment.
I was talking to a friend the other day about whether all the down-at-heel jobs and sad situations puts us off the town we work in. But for both of us it was still a resounding no! We do tend to get a rather skewed view of things in some ways. And in terms of this blog, I think I should try a bit harder to get across all the positive situations we deal with - and there are lots (although reading my posts that might surprise you).
NZ sounds great. I think if there were two places I'd emigrate to, it'd be NZ or Canada. I fancy myself as a bit of a backwoodsman. Tracking moose. Building a cabin, that kind of thing (but no doubt that's the equivalent of thinking everyone in England talks like a Cockney and staggers about in the fog?
Have you got a blog about your life in NZ? I'd be interested to read it!

Judith said...

No blog, sorry. I started one a few years ago but it died from lack of sustenance. I have a very boring life - work, housework, looking after the animals, cooking & eating, etc etc blah blah one day very like another. Not complaining, that's the way I like it!

Spence Kennedy said...

Nevertheless... if you do start it up again, let me know!