Blood, S&M and vomit: what it's really like to be an ambulance driver
The hours are long and stress levels are high.
But Kit Wharton, ambulance driver and author of a new memoir, tells Nick Duerden that the job is where he belongs. Just don’t mention Mr Stinky…
It is early morning and Kit Wharton, an NHS ambulance driver recently off another 12-hour shift and sitting in his kitchen, is telling me about his work.
He has just written a book, Emergency Admissions, in which he recalls cases that amply demonstrate how the life of an ambulance crew can be a messy one – illness, road traffic accidents, a lot of blood, the occasional death.
Wharton was granted permission by his bosses to write the memoir on condition that all names (except his own) were changed, and that locations weren’t revealed.
The Andy McNab of the NHS
After we speak comes word that no photographs of the author can be printed, as if the NHS now considers him its own Andy McNab.
During our conversation, he is careful not to sound in any way critical of those who employ him.
“I’m a bit anxious about it all,” he confesses.
Wharton, a father of two, comes across in much the same way as emergency services workers are portrayed in television dramas: lugubrious and deadpan, full of gallows humour.
But the job isn’t always dramatic, he points out: “The most common call we get is from elderly people that have fallen over. We go to see them, pick them up, do some medical observations – then either take them to hospital or leave them at home.” The job remains a perennially tense one, however, because the spectre of tragedy is only ever a call away.
All in a day’s work His book is a series of diary-like snapshots of his daily work, and inevitably focuses on the calls that are dramatic: the fiftysomething woman who passed out after being whipped a little too enthusiastically at an S&M party; the homeless man, knocked down by a bus, whom he refers to as “Mr Stinky”; and the mentally ill man who thought it a good idea to swim the Channel before realising he wasn’t great in water. In Wharton’s merciless estimation, he was, “raving f***ing mad. Nuts. Bonkers. Cuckoo.”
The story of the elderly gentleman so heavily constipated he ended up vomiting his own faeces is one that lingers in the memory. “All in a day’s work,” he says, with what might just be a hint of pride.
Wharton is 51-years-old, and a former journalist. “But I was hopeless,” he says. Being part of an ambulance crew felt like a better fit. “To be honest, this is the only job where I’ve ever felt I really belonged.”
Hard drive: What it takes to work in the ambulance service
According to the College of Paramedics, entry into the profession has changed. Historically, it was achieved by working in various roles within a specific NHS ambulance service.
Prospective paramedics would start out in the non-emergency Patient Transport Service, before moving into accident and emergency work following qualification as an ambulance technician. Then, after acquiring some experience, they would sit entry exams and complete a training course to become a qualified paramedic.
However, with an increasing number of university courses now leading to the paramedic qualification, this is no longer the case. The recommended route to becoming a paramedic is the completion of a higher education diploma in paramedic science (or equivalent). To become an ambulance paramedic, you need a foundation degree, diploma of higher education (DipHE), or a degree in paramedic science or paramedic emergency care. You could start as a student paramedic or trainee technician for an ambulance service.
On average, earnings for ambulance paramedics are between £22,000 and £35,250 a year (according to gov.co.uk). Ambulance trusts dealt with an average of 16.1 emergency calls a minute (23,216 on average each day) in 2013-14. Emergency vehicles responded to 6.33 million calls in that time. Of these, 95.1 per cent (6.02 million) were responses to a 999 emergency call, and 4.9 per cent (309,260) were in response to a call to the 111 service. Nevertheless, his job is an increasingly stressful one given the financial crisis within the NHS.
Struggling to cope
Recent reports have suggested that A&E departments are continually struggling to cope with demand, and are now so full that they either turn ambulances away or make them wait outside, wasting more than 500,000 cumulative hours in a queue.
The sick sometimes die because they aren’t seen in time, but Wharton, mindful of sounding a critical note, attempts to paint a brighter picture.
“Most people are surprised we arrive at them so quickly,” he says, before conceding, “though, it’s true, I’m not sure we’re always hitting our targets.”
The reason for this, he suggests, is us, the public: “Calls to 999 are increasing year on year, and these days many people will call an ambulance for the wrong reasons.” In praise of the no-fuss generation In his book, he points out that the wartime generation – those people, he points out, “who defeated Hitler” – never complained because they didn’t want to make a fuss. That generation is dying out, “to be replaced by today’s me-generation – products of the welfare state from cradle to grave, who call an ambulance at the drop of a hat because they’ve scratched their finger opening their dole cheque.”
He sounds angry, I suggest to him. “Not angry, just… exasperated.” Little wonder the tone he strikes is so battle-weary. The average working day for ambulance crew is 12 hours, though shorter shifts are available.
A meaningful job
“People do quit out of stress, I suppose,” he concedes, “but I find the job stimulating, and it feels meaningful.” I ask him how he unwinds. “I murder children,” he jokes.
The biggest impact the job has had on him is in how he views the ageing process. “Doing this, you realise that a lot of unpleasant things will happen to you as you get older. The body starts breaking down. It no longer does what you want it to do.”
Wharton says he was recently called to the house of a man dying of cancer. “His friend wanted us to take him to hospital because he had become dehydrated and confused. His system was failing. Extending life isn’t always the answer “We ended up consulting with a doctor, and the patient himself during a lucid moment, and we all agreed that it would be best to leave him where he was, at home – where he could die in peace, and not in a hospital ward.”
He says that our approach to treating people now is to throw drugs at them in the hope of extending their life – but that extending life isn’t always the answer. “A lot of elderly patients say the same thing to us: don’t get old. Just don’t get old.” He falls quiet now, gallows humour conspicuous by its absence.
‘Emergency Admissions’ by Kit Wharton (4th Estate, £9.99) is out now