It is just gone 7am, minutes into a 12-hour shift, when Salena Alcock and Colin Heaslip get their first 999 job and their ambulance is rolling in seconds.
Bury St Edmunds is shrouded in patchy fog as we head for Redgrave where an 84-year-old man has had a fall. It is nearer Diss but while a single ambulance man has been sent from there, we are the nearest full crew.
Medical technician Colin calls up details of the case on the integrated control and sat nav screen, as paramedic Salena drives, and they discuss who is taking what into the house.
Everyone makes way for us, except one pick up driver who fails to notice our blue lights and siren until someone coming the other way flashes their lights.
Salena says later: “You wouldn’t believe how many people who are oblivious to us are on the phone.”
At Redgrave, the Diss ambulance man explains the patient, who has cancer, has fallen getting out of bed and hit his back.
As the three ambulance people manoeuvre him down the narrow stairs, his wife says: “They’re marvellous. I’m afraid we’ve had to call them out before.”
Driving to West Suffolk Hospital, while Colin tends the patient, Salena, who has 20 years in the service, points to the computer screen.
“This is brilliant,” she says. “While callers are on the phone, this system is being updated. If they’re close, you can be knocking on the door while they’re still on the phone.”
The Norwich control room starts the system so the crew do not even enter an address in the sat nav.
Salena adds: “It will pick up your post code, or where you are on a mobile, so even if the call is abandoned when someone hasn’t said where they are, we can still attend.”
With the patient safely at WSH, where he will stay for six days, Salena has cleaned the ambulance’s trolley and Steve Turner of the mobile cleaning crew has cleaned the vehicle interior, saving the crew about 15min.
Colin hasn’t even reversed from the parking bay before the next job comes in. It is rated priority four, but minutes later a warning goes off and a priority one job comes in.
A man at Rougham Industrial Estate has chest pains and we are soon heading up the A14. They do not keep the sirens on but use them when they need to clear town traffic, on the approach to junctions or when passing lines of vehicles on dual carriageways, so drivers do not pull out,
We are doing about 90mph and Colin says: “That’s something that confuses road users because they don’t realise we’re coming up on them that quickly.”
On town and country roads they like people to pull over and stop as soon as they safely can. If you only slow down they often cannot overtake because of the risk of something coming the other way. Salena and Colin bemoan drivers who pull out of turnings instead of letting them pass.
But generally, people make way. Salena praises Bury’s market traders who clear space to get ambulances into the market.
Another problem they face is while the sat nav gets them to a street, the lack of house or business names causes delays, as happens at Rougham.
We cannot find the industrial unit and bystander has never heard of the company, but then two women ask if we’re looking for Steven Nelson who has chest pains.
Steven, 42, walks to the ambulance but is complaining of chest pains and has been told by his doctor to call an ambulance.
Colin explains: “The GP can’t turn up with an electro-cardiogram and we’ve got all the drugs, so any chest pains, call an ambulance.”
Steven’s ECG is normal but his heart may still be under stress, so they take him to WSH for a blood test to check for that. Steven was treated and discharged.
It is still only 10am so we head to the ambulance station hoping for coffee, but get half a cup before being sent to the centre of Bury.
Sitting in his front room Lionel Head, 80, is well aware how serious chest pains are, having once had a heart attack.
His ECG shows irregularities, which may be normal for him, but Salena and Colin decide to take him to WSH.
Lionel says: “I know you’re busy and I didn’t want to be a nuisance.”
Salena replies: “Don’t you worry about how busy we are. If you’ve got chest pains, you call us.”
Lionel was still in hospital a week later.
The next call shows how dangerous ‘not being a nuisance’ can be. It is a routine pick up from Mildenhall’s Market Cross Surgery where a patient with a lung disorder has gone, because he is having more trouble than usual breathing. Colin thinks we will probably be diverted to a more urgent call.
The 80-year-old man at the surgery says this is unnecessary fuss when he is only off colour, but as soon as Salena puts him on the heart monitor things change. His heart rate is double normal, he has a temperature, a high blood sugar level and, on questioning, reveals a chest infection on top of his lung condition. Our routine pick up has just become an emergency.
Salena calmly tells him we will use sirens ‘because the traffic’s heavy’ and radios a sepsis alert to WSH.
With his playing down how he felt, the surgery would not have realised how serious it was, but sepsis is when the immune system overreacts to an infection and attacks the body.
East of England Ambulance Trust pioneered a sepsis checking system, trialled with WSH.
Colin explains: “He ticks all the boxes for sepsis. His heart is going at 130 a minute and at some stage it could say ‘that’s it’ and stop.”
Seconds after our arrival at A&E, a team is beside him with a tray of drugs.
We head back to the station where Salena and Colin are ensured a half hour lunch break, which was not so in the past. We have been busy though nothing bad has happened, so how do they cope with the worst things?
“We all find our own way,” Salena says.
“We support each other,” Colin adds. “You go through a whole range of emotions.”
He recalls ending a shift with an eight-week-old dying after a heart attack but the next day he delivered a baby in the same hospital cubicle.