Tuesday, March 10, 2009


The blond woman who took an overdose is not where she is supposed to be. No one down on the beach or the promenade seem to know anything about her, who made the call, where she might have gone, who she is, whether she ever existed. A slow, weekend river of people slips around us, absorbing our fluorescent jackets and over-stuffed bags, casually feeling out the potential for drama in this scene, and then moving on with a shared nod or smile, or an innocent re-pocketing of a camera phone, without dropping a step or a word of conversation, on to the next thing.

I feel like a bad street performer failing to drum up custom. We look east and west along the promenade, but there are no signs of anything going on, any concerned groups, any fallen figures. She really could be anywhere.
Someone taps my shoulder. A soupy-eyed woman leans in close, smelling of vinegar chips and a polo mint.
‘Sorry to intrude,’ she says, ‘but are you looking for an elderly man who’s fallen down some steps?’
‘No – but..’
‘Well, just in case you’re interested, he’s over on the steps of the museum. Just thought I’d let you know. No harm done. Goodbye to you.’
And she’s off before I can ask her any more.
Two policemen, their trousers tucked into their combat boots, appear from out of the crowd and plant themselves in front of us.
‘Blond woman? OD?’
They lean back, buttressed by their huge black boots, studying the crowd. It feels as if they should be carrying guns, but it’s just their hands tucked into the little front pockets of their flack jackets.
‘We got that too. But no-one seems to know a thing.’
‘Who made the call?’
‘Third party. Absconded. Hoax? You decide.’
‘We’ve got something else going on over by the museum. I think we’ll head over there and see what’s what. We’re not accomplishing much here.’
‘Later, mate.’

Whilst the blond woman was impossible to spot, this patient may as well be carrying a placard saying: Help Required Here. He is still on his feet, but he clutches on to the black iron railings beside him with the grip of someone who has suddenly lost all faith in the predictability of the world. An elderly woman stands beside him with one hand on his shoulder. With her other hand she raises up her handbag as we approach along the pavement.
‘It’s my fault,’ she says, breathily. ‘I lost my footing and pulled Malcolm down with me.’
Malcolm stands unsteadily, his frame rattling beneath his suit. But it seems they only stumbled down a couple of steps; Malcolm has a graze on his hand and shin, is in no pain.
‘Shall we take a slow walk to the ambulance,’ I tell him.
His eyes are scanning the crowd for something, recognition, direction, I don’t know, but when I repeat my question, he suddenly rests his eyes on me, as if he’s surprised that a response would come from something so close by.
‘We can’t miss the coach,’ his wife says. ‘How’ll we get back to the hotel?’
‘Let’s worry about that in a minute,’ I say. ‘Most important thing is to get Malcolm checked out, so we can be sure everything’s okay.’
‘There’s nothing wrong with him. It was my fault. I tripped and pulled him down.’
‘Let’s just take a minute or two on the vehicle, do all the usual checks, and then we’ll see.’
He takes my arm, and we head for the truck.

Malcolm is lying on the trolley with his chest laid bare and dotted up. There is a great knotted scar running down his sternum where the surgeons cracked his chest and performed a coronary artery bypass last year. Implacably the ECG rolls out its lines and numbers as Malcolm takes a minute to cry out the tears he was restraining on the steps. His wife sits on the seat behind him, looking at her watch, kneading her handbag strap.
‘I’m sorry,’ he says. ‘This is all so stupid.’
‘But it’s my fault,’ his wife says. ‘I’m the one who should be in tears.’
‘Why are you so upset, Malcolm?’
‘It was the fall. I felt myself going and – well, I know it wasn’t far – and it all happened so quickly - but just when I started to go and couldn’t stop myself I felt like I was falling into a great big pit, and when I reached the bottom I’d smash into pieces, I’d just fall apart down the middle, whack, and that would be it.’
He cries into the tissue I give him.
We talk about pragmatic things, grounded things, strategies for getting the couple back to their hotel, numbers we could call, whilst Malcolm gathers himself at the centre of all this, dabbing at his face with a wad of tissue, wired up to our machines, falling into the pit again.


The Happy Medic said...

Great description of the crowd, I've been in that situation before and that is the exact way I would describe it, but could never find the words.

I'm hooked on the way you tell your tales, keep it up and stay safe.

the Happy Medic

Wren said...

What a terrifying moment for poor Malcom! My late father had that same surgery, years ago, and was quite fragile, emotionally, for a couple years after. And who can blame them? While it's a life-saver, heart surgery is a terrible violation of the body's integrity, and while the brain might not recall the actual cutting and handling of skin, bone and vital organs, the body does -- and informs the mind. Dad also had the occasional terrors; fortunately, they passed and he went on to live many more years, active and healthy.

I hope Malcom ended up well.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes it must feel as if you're standing in a river, pulling out first this one, then that, getting them onto a raft, watching it move downstream, turning to pull the next one out.

Spence Kennedy said...

Happy Medic!
Thanks v much for stopping by, reading the blog and leaving such an encouraging comment. I really appreciate it.

I can only imagine what it must mean to go through a procedure like that. The aftershocks - spiritual and physical - must be terrible. I'm so pleased your Dad was able to get over the op and enjoy a few more years of health.

It does absolutely feel like that! I suppose our raw material is (mostly) people in difficulty of one sort or another. It's rewarding in that you can use practical interventions to make a difference - get someone up off the floor, help them breathe, get them to hospital, blah - but sometimes it's hard to resist the feeling that you're a little figure in a vast diorama of pain and suffering!

But hey - it's a living.

Thanks for all your comments :)