15 hours without a break and falling asleep at the wheel ... exhausted paramedic warns of a service at breaking point
Lives are being put at risk as the number of 999 calls mean exhausted paramedics have been working 15 hours without a break, it has been claimed.
A paramedic has spoken out about the horrors he says are facing patients and staff in Northern Ireland's under-pressure health service.
He said morale has been shot to pieces by the crisis.
"Things have been getting really bad for quite a while now, but over Christmas it was a nightmare," he said.
"There have been occasions over the last couple of weeks where I have been on night duty and I've found myself starting to fall asleep behind the wheel.
"I'm shattered, we all are. Morale isn't at rock bottom, it's non-existent.
"I wanted to be a paramedic from when I was 11 but I am genuinely thinking of giving it up.
"I can't do it anymore. If I could find a job that would pay the bills I would leave tomorrow."
The NHS employee said conditions have been gradually deteriorating but the situation reached crisis point over the Christmas period.
He said: "The days coming up to Christmas, it started to get really busy.
"Our shifts are 12 hours but we're working up to 16 hours every shift now and we're lucky if we get a break eight or nine hours in."
The paramedic said the scenes of chaos he encountered in A&Es over the Christmas period were also the worst he has seen.
He claimed he was told by a member of staff at the emergency department at Antrim Area Hospital that the unit had run out of portable oxygen.
"We had been there for hours waiting to hand over our patient," he continued.
"They had been having breathing difficulties so they had been on oxygen and we were close to running out.
"I went looking for some and was told there was none left in the A&E. They only had the oxygen points in the unit and they were looking to bring portable tanks down from the wards.There were other crews waiting with their patients too and they were starting to run out.
"If we had run out completely we would have had to take our patient on their stretcher over to one of the oxygen points where another patient already was." Brian McNeill, director of operations for the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service, said he was aware that due to the volume of calls over Christmas, many staff worked shifts of up to 15 hours and some went without a meal break. He paid tribute to all staff for their efforts and said he hopes the issues will be addressed in the coming months to ensure they do not occur again.
"Despite our best efforts, there were times when we were unable to respond as we would have liked and to these patients who did not get the service they may have expected, I would like to offer a sincere apology," Mr McNeill said.
"Those who did avail of our services will have witnessed the high quality of care delivered by paramedics, emergency medical technicians, PCS (Patient Care Services) and control staff, whilst not being aware of the difficulties they were facing in terms of late finishes and missed meal breaks.
"They performed admirably over this period and while apologising for missed meal breaks and late finishes, which kept them away from their families longer than they would have liked, I also sincerely thank them for their efforts."
Meanwhile, a Northern Trust spokeswoman said anyone who needs to use an A&E for urgent or life-threatening conditions will continue to receive access to safe, high quality services from their staff.
"Those staff continue to work tirelessly, often going the extra mile, to ensure that patients receive the care they need as quickly and safely as possible, and we thank them for that dedication and commitment during what continues to be a very busy period," she said.
"We have been working hard to support staff and since Boxing Day there has also been a high level of senior managerial support into the site."