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The last time I called an ambulance: Famous faces tell us their experiences

Our A&E departments have been struggling to cope with the number of patients, but what prompts someone to ring 999? Kerry McKittrick hears six people’s experiences

Blue lights, blaring sirens and the sound of an engine being gunned — even the sight and sound of an ambulance is enough to get the pulse racing in fellow motorists and casual observers alike.

More unsettling still, though, is finding yourself in a situation where an ambulance needs to be called, either by or for yourself, a loved one or a stranger on the street who has collapsed or taken ill.

For most of us, it’s the kind of human drama we will be unlikely to encounter frequently in our lives. But as the pressures mount on accident and emergency units across Northern Ireland, it’s a facility which is finding itself increasingly struggling to keep up with the demands placed on it, with health experts urging members of the public to ensure they only request such critical services in an emergency.

We talk to six well-known people about their experiences with ambulances, and how they coped with finding themselves in the midst of an emergency.

‘Suddenly my niece’s cheeks turned blue’

Tracey Rodgers (47) is the director of Style Academy model agency. She lives in Belfast with her husband Stefan. She says:

“I was at my sister’s house with my nephew Christy and niece Izzy, who was about 18 months at the time. I’m quite comfortable with the kids and have looked after them before. Izzy had a little cold but she was in good form and running round the furniture.

All of a sudden Izzy went floppy. Her cheeks had been red but then turned blue and her eyes rolled back in her head. She was like a rag doll.

We now know it was a febrile seizure and it’s quite common in babies and children if their temperature goes up. I hadn’t a clue what was going on at the time, though.

Straight away I got Christy to go and get my sister Sue. She took one look at Izzy, grabbed her off me and put her head under the cold tap to try and get her temperature down. While she was doing that I ran off to phone for an ambulance and get some Calpol for her. The ambulance people told me that liquid ibuprofen would be more effective. They told us to strip her, get her outside and put her on the cold concrete ground to cool her down.

My sister was as calm as anything but I was panicking all over the place. I dropped the phone and couldn’t get the Calpol open. I kept shouting at Christy, telling him everything was fine when it was anything but.

The ambulance took about 20 minutes and the person on the other end of the phone stayed chatting to me. When the crew arrived they could assess Izzy wasn’t in immediate danger as she had cooled down and come round a bit. They took control of the whole thing.

Sue went with Izzy in the ambulance and William followed in the car while I stayed to look after Christy. Sue phoned me a couple of hours later, though, as Izzy was being discharged — if she had been younger than 18 months they would have kept her in overnight.

Izzy is fine now but once a seizure like that happens children are more likely to have them again. It means lots of sleepless nights if she comes down with something, as she’s watched like a hawk.”

'I actually thought that I was having a heart attack'

Bangor man Marcus Hunter Neill (32) is a radio presenter and drag queen, otherwise known as Lady Portia Diamante. He says:

When I was 18 I started having pains in my chest in the middle of the night. I woke up with a bit of pain and went back to sleep, but when I woke the next morning I could barely breathe.

I actually thought I was having a heart attack because the pain was so intense. I was the only person in the house and thought it was really serious, so I called an ambulance and unlocked the door for them just in case I collapsed.

I remember the woman on the other end asked me lots of questions about how I felt and what my symptoms were.

It is calming having someone on the other end of the phone because you get the sense that there is someone there with you and that help is on its way. The ambulance arrived less than 10 minutes later.

The paramedics came and started checking my vital signs before taking me to hospital. I still couldn't breathe and felt like I was being stabbed in the heart each time I tried to inhale. At the hospital, I was sent for a scan and it turned out I had a viral infection in between my ribs and lungs which was causing the pain.

They gave me steroids to ease the pain and then prescribed antibiotics for the virus.

I was treated professionally and kindly the whole time, and was very grateful for the kindness of the woman on the phone who kept me calm while I waited for the ambulance to arrive."

‘A woman and her son were trapped in their car after an accident on M1’

Jo-Anne Dobson (48) is an Ulster Unionist MLA and lives in Waringstown with her husband John. They have two sons, Elliot (24) and Mark (21). She says:

A few months ago I was heading to Stormont with my son Mark and assistant Andrew. We were on the M1 when all of a sudden the car in front of us swerved, hit the central reservation and flipped over, ending up on the bank. It was like something out of a film.

We stopped the car straight away, Mark got on the phone to call the ambulance, and I went to the car to check everyone was safe.

It was a woman and her son, who was about six-years-old. She was trapped, but I don’t think she was seriously injured, although there was quite a lot of blood from a cut on her head. She was crying about the wee boy and he was crying about his mum.

I spoke to her and spoke to the child and told each of them the other was ok, that they were safe and that the emergency services were coming. Then a woman arrived who was a teacher at a special needs school, so she took over talking to the boy and I talked to the mum in the front. I just talked nonsense to keep them calm — the people on the phone from the ambulance told us not to move them or try and get them out of the car in any way.

It turned out the lady was taking her son out to Titanic Belfast for the day. She didn’t know what had happened in the car — she thought something must have distracted her and that made her swerve. The ambulance arrived in about 15 minutes and told us we had done exactly the right thing. They got the wee boy out of the car first so we took him round the other side of the car while they worked on his mother.

They were taken off to the hospital in the ambulance and we went on our way. I didn’t know anything about them other than they were from Dungannon, so I never found out how they fared.

You go into autopilot when something like that happens. My son Mark was diagnosed with severe reflux when he was five weeks old — he eventually would have a kidney transplant. We went to the GP who called an ambulance for him and that was the first of several ambulance journeys for him as he spent a lot of years being very ill.

Things always seem much worse with small children and that first time was very scary because we didn’t know what was wrong. Everything was in slow motion and it felt like it was happening to someone else.

Ambulance crews do so much to reassure you, though. They talk you through every step of the way and do everything they can to relax you.”

‘A friend collapsed and wasn’t able to get up’

Dolores Kelly (55) is an SDLP MLA and lives in Aghagallen with her husband Eamon. They have four grown-up children. She says:

The last time I had to call an ambulance was two-and-a-half years ago. My husband’s best friend was in the final stages of bowel cancer. He phoned us one day because he collapsed on the floor and wasn’t able to get up — he lived alone. Eamon and I went round to the house and helped him into a chair, but we could see that he was quite unwell. We talked for a little while and consulted his Macmillan nurse and eventually got our  friend’s agreement to ring 999.

First of all, a paramedic arrived in a car. He came in and did all sorts of checks on our friend, introducing himself and explaining what was going on. Eamon and I gave them some space and made sure there was enough room outside, in case an ambulance had to pull up.

The paramedic’s assessment was that yes, a hospital admittance was required and he then called for an ambulance. Our friend was taken off to hospital — we made the house secure and packed a little hospital bag. He was in hospital for a couple of weeks before being moved to a hospice where he passed away six weeks later. It was a distressing time. Our friend had been lying helpless for quite some time before he called us. The professionalism of the paramedics was a great help, though, for us and even more so for our friend.

They remained calm and gave good information — and made a scary situation that little bit better.”

‘I broke out in hives and couldn’t breathe’

Lindsey Firth (47) is a nurse practitioner and the mother of paralympic swimmer Bethany Firth. She lives in Seaford, Co Down, with her husband Peter and their children Ben (24), Josh (22), Bethany (18) and Eve (11). She says:

I have an allergy to eggs. It’s something I had as a child and grew out of, but when I had Eve it came back really badly. If I have anything to do with eggs or anything that’s been contaminated by them, I go into anaphylactic shock.

I check everything I eat, but sometimes you miss something. About four years ago I ate a dip which must have been contaminated. As soon as I started eating it, I knew there was something wrong.

My tongue started swelling up and my mouth went numb. Then I broke out in hives and my throat started swelling up, and I couldn’t breathe. It took just a few seconds for all that to happen.

I carry two Epipens with me at all times, in case something goes wrong with one of them.

When I have a reaction everyone has a job to do. Peter calls the ambulance and Ben takes Eve down the lane to look out for the ambulance. Bethany sits and talks to me. It gives everyone something to focus on and keeps things calm, as after the first Epipen is administered I can start to lose consciousness. The ambulance took six or seven minutes to get to us and I had two Epipens before they got there. They don’t carry the drugs for resuscitation of anaphylactic shock so they put oxygen on me, lifted me up and ran. Bethany came with me in the ambulance and talked to me the whole way — doing that keeps her calm — while Peter followed in the car.

At the hospital I remember people poking and prodding me, taking blood and giving me injections. For anaphylactic shock they keep you in for more than four hours because your body can react a second time after the initial shock, and if it does that they keep you in for 24 hours. They treated me with adrenaline and antihistamines, and things started to return to normal. Now, I first touch food with my hand and if that’s ok, then I put some on my lip just to test it. If there’s any egg in it at all, my skin will react.

We’ve had the ambulance out twice, while Peter has had to rush me in the car about three times.

The ambulance service talks to you the whole time and it really helps the rest of the family — I go in and out of consciousness, but I can hear Peter talking away to them while we wait and it gives him something to focus on, which I think helps.”

‘Dad lay down and was doubled up in agony’

Lynda Bryans (51) is married to Ulster Unionist Party leader and former broadcaster Mike Nesbitt (56). After a successful career in TV, Lynda balances running media production company Take I Take II with her husband, lecturing at the Belfast Metropolitan College, and being mum to PJ (19) and Christopher (17). She says:

I’ve had to call ambulances a couple of times in the last year which would be very unusual for me. The first time was when I was at college. It was during a holiday so there was hardly anyone around, but there was a little assessment going on in the classroom.

All of a sudden a guy dropped to his knees on the floor and then lay down — it was as if he went for a sleep. In fact, he was having an epileptic fit.

I got on my mobile phone to call the ambulance straight away. The woman on the phone was great and told us what to do — make sure to prevent him from choking and lay him on his side. She was so calming.

Within about 10 minutes an ambulance car with a paramedic arrived, and the ambulance itself came almost immediately after that. The guy had come out of the fit at that point and was just lying there unconscious.

The paramedics swooped in and took over, and the man was taken off to hospital.

The second call I made was in September last year. My dad was fixing a pane of glass on my greenhouse. He’s a very active man, but had complained recently of stomach pains that came on very suddenly. The doctor had said if it happened again we should call an ambulance.

Dad came in and was doubled up in agony. He lay down on the sofa and I made the call. Again the person on the end of the phone was so calming and reassuring.

The ambulance came along and the paramedics were two lovely guys. Again, they were calm and reassuring and they smiled and chatted away to dad. They took control and constantly told dad exactly what they were doing and why. They even joked with him.

My mum went with dad in the ambulance to the hospital and I followed in the car to A&E. The pain went as soon as it had arrived, but they gave him a scan and monitored him.

It turned out that the aspirin he was prescribed was causing ulcers in his stomach. It was something simple, but it caused him a lot of pain. They just gave him a different kind of aspirin with a different coating and it hasn’t happened since.

Both situations had good outcomes, but they were both scary. You really need professionals to take over and they were so calming and in control — they reassured all of us.

I cannot praise those people highly enough.”

A long history of coming to help...

  • Ambulances date from ancient times, but the first official ambulances were recorded in the 15th century in Spain, when injured soldiers were picked up from the battlefield and taken to military hospitals
  • Traditionally, the wounded were not transported from battlefields until after hostilities had ended, meaning many would die where they lay before help could reach them. It was Napoleon Bonaparte’s chief physician, Dominique Jean Larrey, who developed a system of horse-drawn wagons to transport the wounded from an active battlefield
  • Ambulances became the norm in the 19th century as more and more cities across the world developed fleets of horse-drawn services

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