I was used as a punchbag, says Tyrone medic attacked by male patient in ambulance
A Co Tyrone paramedic who was attacked inside an ambulance has recalled the terrifying moment she was used as a "punchbag" by a male patient.
Anne Marie Fitzgerald, who has worked for the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service (NIAS) for more than 20 years, was forced to take leave after the attack last week.
The mother-of-two is one of 47 paramedics to be physically assaulted so far this year.
She was attacked in the back of an ambulance shortly after it arrived at the South West Acute Hospital in Enniskillen during the early hours of last Wednesday morning.
The male patient had been transported to the hospital from a house in the area.
Anne Marie (50), who had been on duty since the previous day, was first punched in the mouth before the man began striking her repeatedly.
"He lunged at me and punched me once in the mouth. I then fell back," she said.
As Anne Marie attempted to shield herself with her arms, the patient then punched her on the back of her head and stomach before colleagues came to her aid.
"It happened really quickly. A colleague opened the back of the ambulance and then I managed to climb over a stretcher to get away," she explained.
It took four people, including a police officer, to restrain the violent patient.
Anne Marie was left with bumps to her head, a swollen lip and bruising to an eye. The emotional impact of the attack, however, will take much longer to heal, she told the Belfast Telegraph yesterday.
"Never had I been physically assaulted like that before. I've been working in the ambulance service 20-plus years," she said.
"Emotions can be high, I can take that, but there was no warning, no verbal aggression. There wasn't a build-up. The light went on, he looked at me and I just thought, 'Here we go'.
"He was much bigger than I was and it happened so quickly.
"I never anticipated being in that position. It has put me in a place that I hate being in.
"I just feel vulnerable, overwhelmed and in shock.
"We try our best. We're not there to be used as a punchbag, verbally or physically.
"Afterwards I just kept saying, 'I'm fine, I'm fine'."
Anne Marie, who works in the Western Area out of the Omagh Ambulance Station, said she had yet to formally report the assault to police because it was still sinking in.
"I haven't spoken to anybody yet - it's just too raw. I'm still on sick leave, trying to cope with what happened," she added.
The health service worker, who is also a Sinn Fein councillor for Mid-Tyrone on the Fermanagh and Omagh District Council, said the attack also left her husband, Kevin, and two daughters, Aoife (20) and Clodagh (18), deeply upset.
"When I first told my husband he was alarmed, upset and angry, and my daughters were stunned," she stressed.
Despite the attack, Anne Marie said she loves her profession, which she entered in the mid-90s after working as a staff nurse in the former Tyrone County Hospital.
"I can take the verbal abuse (as part of the job)," she added.
"The raised emotions can be hard to take, but I can see where people's emotions are coming from."
Ambulance service statistics show that last year 432 assaults against ambulance personnel were recorded, 156 of which were physical.
Overall, there have been 130 assaults, including verbal, on paramedics so far in 2019. In 46 cases it was a physical attack.
Anne Marie has now joined that list, but she is not the only person in her station to have been subjected to an attack.
"A few colleagues have been assaulted before," she said.
"One colleague was pulled to the ground and had her hair pulled by a person who also punched her and attempted to bite her.
"But it isn't just paramedics. It's casualty staff, care assistants, porters, social workers. It's getting to be scary stuff."
Anne Marie's attack, first reported by the Ulster Herald, has been condemned by the NIAS.
Chief executive Michael Bloomfield said the case should result in tougher action against those who perpetrate violence against people working for the emergency services.
Describing the assault as unacceptable, he said attacks were occurring "too frequently" and had a knock-on effect on staffing levels and cover.
He explained: "This could have potentially tragic consequences for those who may have need of our service."
Mr Bloomfield stressed that paramedics such as Anne Marie deserved better.
"We will continue to support them through measures available to us, including immediate management and peer support, which will continue for as long as necessary," he added.
Anne Marie said she spoke out about the attack to highlight the worrying trend.
"It's horrible, it's vile... I want to see a zero-tolerance approach. I want to see the courts come down harder," she added.