Paramedic thrown down the stairs by man she was trying to help - 'I thought he was going to kill me'
A paramedic has told how she was left fearing for her life after a violent and aggressive patient tried to throw her down a flight of stairs.
Heather Sharpe thought she would be killed during the terrifying encounter with the 18-stone thug while answering a 999 call.
Fighting back tears, she described how the attack left her afraid, vulnerable and unable to work. Remarkably, the culprit never faced punishment.
Her story provides a graphic insight into the dangers faced every day by staff from our front line emergency services.
Last year, more than 250 verbal and physical assaults were recorded against Northern Ireland Ambulance Service workers.
The true figure will be even higher, as some attacks still go unreported.
It comes ahead of one of the busiest nights for crews, who each year run a gauntlet of abuse from drunken New Year revellers.
Heather has worked for the Ambulance Service for almost 20 years and is based in the Whiteabbey and Carrickfergus area.
Her story features in a video released yesterday aimed at raising awareness of the impact of attacks on staff.
In it, Heather describes how her clothes were ripped from her by the violent patient, who threatened to hurl her down the stairs.
She describes how at one point she feared she would die. Every year around 190,000 calls are received by the Ambulance Service's emergency control centre.
It was one such call, on a Sunday afternoon in 2012, which left Heather terrified she could be killed. She was a lone responder to an emergency call to a house in Newtownabbey. Heather recalled walking up to one of the bedrooms where she was met by what she described as "a burly, six-foot male".
The man, dressed only in his underwear, was in an agitated and aggressive state.
Heather, who was unsure of his precise medical complaint, tried to assess him.
"He was shouting at me, he was gesturing towards me," she explained. "We have a defibrillator that we use to carry out a lot of our assessments, and he tried to kick it and throw it across the room."
When she attempted to make radio contact with her control room to summon help, the man ripped it from her uniform, leaving her isolated.
She managed to raise the alarm using an emergency button on a portable radio on her belt. "Again his aggression was fixated on me trying to use the radio to call for help," she added.
"He then reached out for the base set on the belt and, in doing that, he ripped my trousers."
Trying to escape, she moved towards the hallway, but was followed by the man.
"He got me by the scruff of my shirt and tried to throw me down the stairs," she continued.
Heather said her main reaction was shock. "It's difficult when you're in a house, and your sole purpose is to try and help someone, and you find yourself in a situation where someone is being aggressive towards you.
"He was ripping at my uniform which was causing my shirt to become undone. He had already ripped and torn my trousers. He was in a relatively undressed state and I really feared for my safety. I feared for my life and I thought he was going to kill me."
The man's wife, who made the 999 call, tried to intervene and screamed for him to let go.
However, both were unable to drag away the attacker, who Heather said weighed 17 or 18 stone.
"I was able to keep my balance on my feet which I think is what saved me," she added. "If I had fallen, I knew if he came down on top of me that I would be killed."
After getting to the bottom of the stairs, Heather was able to escape through the front door.
But, realising the man's wife was still in the house with him, she bravely went back in to make sure she was okay.
Asked what made her risk her own safety by re-entering the home, she replied: "I think it's what makes a paramedic - it's our desire to help people and not see people injured.
"My conscience wouldn't have let me leave that woman in the house with that gentleman with the way that he was behaving."
Fortunately, colleagues had been alerted to the drama when Heather had hit the emergency button. They arrived on the scene and were able to take charge.
After he settled down, Heather confronted her attacker to seek an explanation for his behaviour.
"He mumbled that he was sorry - not with much conviction."
Breaking down in tears, she described how the attack left her unable to work for a time.
"It was not that I wanted to be off, but it left me very shaken and frightened to go into people's houses," she continued.
She added: "It made me question every scenario, every call, every house that I go to and it made me feel more vulnerable than I ever felt in my entire career."
Remarkably, her attacker was never punished for his violent behaviour. "From what I gather, he claimed he had some sort of blackout and couldn't remember anything that happened," Heather added.
"It disgusts me. There certainly was nothing there to prevent him doing that again to another paramedic."
She believes mandatory prison sentences are needed to tackle the problem of attacks on emergency staff.
She said: "Anybody who assaults any paramedic in the line of duty should be dealt with severely by the courts and I think it needs to be a custodial sentence."