I didn’t notice you were there too
I was busy. Sitting in the clinician chair in the ambulance call centre there seemed to be an endless backlog of hospital enquiries, urgent bookings and other tasks all seeking my attention. Requests blinked annoyingly on the computer screen, competing with each other as if this were some form of electronic game.
Sighing, I sipped my coffee, the life support for night shift, and prepared to randomly choose the next task. As I reached out to click an icon, the grim face of the call taker supervisor leaned over the top of the monitor.
“Can you go and sit beside call taker seven? She might need help.”
This was uncommon but not rare. Obviously they wanted to keep the caller on the line and they needed some immediate ambulance advice or input. Moving directly over there, I stood beside the girl as she spoke. Even as I plugged in a second headset, her side of the conversation was chilling enough.
She was instructing someone how to perform CPR on a baby.
The other voice came to life in my ears. Quickly it became evident that it was the baby’s mother. Her voice sobbed then shrieked the next instruction at whoever was working on the baby. The way she used his name explained it well enough. The father.
I listened intently, desperately looking for the opening for some input from me. It wasn’t needed though. The call taker kept talking to her calmly, alternating instructions with encouragement and updates on where the rapidly approaching ambulance was. She looked up a couple of times but all I needed to do was nod in support.
Listening to this was terrible. The grief of the caller was intense and palpable. There could not be a more unimaginable horror for her and, unintentionally, she shared every fraction of it down that telephone. We were all there with her in that house.
What seemed an eternity later the ambulance arrived and the phone was hung up. Just like that the call was over. For a moment I pictured the scene as it would be now, what was being done. Only for a moment though as I needed to move on from that thought. As I unplugged the headset, my eyes looked at the call taker for the first real time. Her face was ashen, stricken. From behind me the supervisor instructed her to unplug immediately. She did so and the supervisor led her out of the room.
When the supervisor returned, she was solemn. She asked me what I thought of the call. Of course it was terrible. The call taker had handled it terrifically. I hadn’t previously thought about how bad it was to just sit and listen to a call like that. To have to stay on line all that time, to keep talking to someone in their worst conceivable moment. It was just like being there. Worse in some ways.
The girl came back later. I had briefly caught sight of her in a room outside crying whilst I refilled my coffee cup. Now she just sat down again at her terminal and plugged in her headset. Just another call taker answering a sea of calls. Not the same call taker any more though I guessed.
Jeff Kenneally www.prehemt.com
Paramedic, prehospital, ambulance, first responder