Monday, March 14, 2011


‘Do you ever get to drive?’
‘We swap over at the hospital. It’s pretty much fifty fifty.’
‘Oh yes?’
‘On blue lights?’
‘Sometimes. It breaks the day up.’
‘All the knowledge you people have. You’re like doctors nowadays.’
‘Well – not really. Doctors have to study a lot longer. They’ve got five years of medical school, then two more working in different areas before they’re qualified to practise. So that’s seven. A paramedic degree takes three. My technician course was ten weeks.’
‘There’s nothing you can’t do.’
Mr Halliburton is sitting on the ambulance chair, his corduroy trousers riding up, exposing his sock garters, his aged mother nervously turning a paper tissue over and over in her hands.
‘All right?’ he says, leaning over and tapping her on her papery arm.
She smiles sadly, then moves her arm from under his hand to dab ineffectually at her nose. Mr Halliburton sighs, adjusts his position, then peers restlessly out through the slats of the window.

I’ve often thought there must be a Handbook of Ambulance Misconceptions somewhere. Part of a secret, international series – one for every job in the world, with a preface roughing out the basic howlers, a stock of questions indexed at the back. I’d bet if I was a trapeze artist, Mr Halliburton would be waiting for me backstage, nodding and winking and drawing himself up to say: ‘I couldn’t do your job, mate. All that swinging about.’

We go over a bump and it seems to shake him from the window into conversation again.
‘I couldn’t do your job, mate’ he says. ‘All that blood and guts.’
‘There isn’t that much trauma.’
‘All that piss and vomit. I couldn’t do it.’
‘We get our fair share of drunks.’
He looks at me, and his eyebrows start to creep up ominously, like a release valve finally giving way to the pressure of the ultimate question.
‘I bet you’ve seen some things,’ he says. ‘ I bet you’ve got some stories to tell.’ He licks his lips, folds his arms and waits.

It makes me cringe, but I can’t say I blame him. I know that the reason I feel uneasy is because I recognise the same curiosity to hear this stuff myself. On the face of it – the cool, rational face - I joined the ambulance service for the hours, the wage, the driving, the out-and-about spirit, the patent usefulness of the job. And all those things stand, of course. But I know too that beneath this safe, CV language move darker, less admissible currents – the urge to satisfy my curiosity, to see what death looked like, how it moved, what it meant. Essentially I wanted to know what the traumatic and bloody events I read about in the papers and soak up endlessly on TV and in films – I wanted to know how those things behaved in real life, and what they might mean to me. I wanted to know if I could cope.

So now – if I was honest, if I tried my best to think about all the jobs I’d done, to tell him what I’d seen and felt and heard over the last four years, what really could I say? What did it come down to? A story about a dead man and his dog? A railway line? An overflowing bath?

‘Well?’ says Mr Halliburton.


laputain said...

I remember seeing a video on some sort of sexual health website (or it might have been nhs careers, given the content) where a consultant in genitourinary medicine basically admitted, albeit in a slightly subtle way, that he thought his job was great cos he got to ask folk questions (about themselves) that you'd never get away with asking elsewhere. He basically said he got to be paid for being a nosy beggar!

That made me chortle, at the time.

I think a huge part of my wanting to be a doctor comes from a desire to meddle- which is to say to be involved in other peoples lives. Need to phrase that better for the ol cv!

Spence Kennedy said...

It'd be great if you could tell the truth on CVs and at interviews, instead of the phoney call & response that it often is. There are so many reasons for doing a particular job - it'd be interesting to hear what the less obvious ones were! :)

Elaine Denning said...

I once asked 4 guys what made them want to be gynaecologists. I had my feet in stirrups at the time and all 4 of them were peering between my legs.

Not one of them answered me, but there was lots of giggling.

True story!

jacksofbuxton said...

It goes with the territory Spence.I speak to all sorts of people through the day yet I tend to be asked the same questions quite regularly.Some of my taxi driving customers have told me they always get asked the same two questions.Are you busy? and what time are you on till?

I suppose it's a lot easier for me to have general chit chat about what's going on in the world (plenty of talk about Japan and Libya at the moment,it'll go back to where I'm off on holiday soon enough.Dorset if you're interested)

A lot of it in your position will more than likely be down to 2 things,nerves and curiosity.Although you must be tempted to tell some huge porkies at times.

If they are really interested,just point out your blog.Perhaps you should stencil the address on the roof of the van above the stretcher....

Spence Kennedy said...

Elaine - Great story! You do wonder why doctors end up in some specialties - but glad they do, obviously!

JoB - Immed. felt embarrassed about the taxi thing. I know I must have asked those two things a million times.

I like making chit chat, but funnily enough the only time I tend to clam up is when I'm getting my hair cut. I think it's because I'm sat in front of a mirror, and I feel self conscious. So I have to keep looking away - but then the guy keeps moving my head back...

Love Dorset. One of my favourite counties. Hope the weather's good for you.


paul said...

i usually tell them the truth, that we never do much of that trauma stuff, tell them for example i've been in 18 months and never been to a proper RTA. kinda worry i might meet them squished under a bus the next day and they'll know i'm making it up as i go along.

tip for haircuts - find a good 'international' barbers where no-one speaks much english. no small talk, although only works if you can demonstrate the cut you want in hand gestures

Spence Kennedy said...

When I lived in London I used to go to a Jamaican barbers round the corner. It was always full but I was the only one ever getting a haircut, the rest were watching the horse racing, smoking and arguing and hanging out. That was easier - he'd shave my head (when he remembered what he was doing) and give me a prod now and again to wake me up. :/

Unknown said...

I can't imagine sharing too much of my personal motivations with strangers.

There are too many levels to sift through. The surface layers are too dull, too proper and I'm only willing to touch those bottom layers on my own.

I agree with jacks, your blog would be the best way to go.

Spence Kennedy said...

Absolutely. It'd be a rare kind of encounter to start trying to share those more obscure motivations. I suppose I just wanted to look at the reason someone might ask to hear those war stories - and why those stories might have been one of the attractions of the job in the first place. More than just 'morbid curiosity' - something to do with trying to discover what your own relation to those things might be.

I'm not expressing myself well at all. Maybe it's something that's better explored more indirectly. But yeah - the blog is a handy place to get these things out!

Thanks v much for the comment Nari. :)