Sheila, a very independent lady in her 70s, was coming back from the shop yesterday with two pints of milk and some cat food in a pull along shopping trolley.
A few feet from her front door she lost her balance and fell forwards on to the cold, hard pavement in Semilong where she remained for the next hour and forty minutes.
Her femur and possibly her ankle were fractured and her kneecap was dislocated. Initially she was lying face down.
If I was her, I think I would have been scared but Sheila is not the kind of person who lives in fear. I think she would have been frustrated to be so close to her front door.
A lot happened in the next two hours, a lot of it was good, but before we get on to that, how can that delay be right?
This particular medical moment – an elderly lady has a fall – wouldn’t normally be a headline simply because it is far too common. It will be talked about amongst those of us who know her, we will all tut and shake our heads about that hour and forty minutes in the cold, but none of us are really surprised by it.
We’re not surprised that she had the fall to start with. The pavements are uneven and frequently strewn with rubbish. Her journey to the corner shop is a relative assault course in which every step must be carefully judged. An elderly neighbour took a tumble in more or less the same spot a few weeks ago. So it’s no big surprise.
And the first call going into the ambulance service – put in by a young mum from a couple of streets away who was marshalling four children at the same time – it was no surprise that she was told all the ambulances were busy at 10.40am on a Monday. It sounds like it should be surprising but it just wasn’t.
As I arrived at the scene, not far from my home, a second call was being to the ambulance service was being made. We were all trying different things to tuck around and under Sheila to keep her warm. Neighbours came out with tea and blankets but the pain in Sheila’s leg stopped us from doing anything that really made her comfortable.
We all knew enough first aid to know that the real problem was the cold seeping into her bones from the ground and, despite the heartening turnout from the community, that was really scary.
Hypothermia can come on in minutes. People can go into shock. Pulses fade away into nothing. If it was going to take an hour or longer for an ambulance what could we do? Isn’t that ridiculous? A simple stumble precipitates what may turn out to be life or death decisions.
I began to weigh up, without knowing the full extent of her injuries, whether scooping Sheila into a car would be worth the agony it would cause her.
“I’m all right, it’s just my knee,” Sheila said.
At that point something fantastic happened. A member of staff from Langham Place clinic found us. A few minutes later she was back with a foil blanket to be followed shortly after by two colleagues with skills and equipment. They couldn’t do much more than us but thankfully took the decision making out of our hands.
They also made the next call to the ambulance service, about 90 minutes after the first. A few minutes later an ambulance arrived and the crew were awesome.
At the end of it all I shouldn’t have been so surprised that in Semilong people would come out of their houses to help and that the excellent local surgery is prepared to act like a battlefield first aid station and send medics out.
But I should be surprised that an elderly person lying on the ground has to wait over an hour and a half for an ambulance. It’s not a big thing – it could have been – but thankfully it is just an everyday thing that says an awful lot about how we are living our lives.
It’s not even about East Midlands Ambulance Service, it’s about the priorities of a society that is one of the ten richest in the world. Now that is a fact that no matter how much I hear it, I find constantly surprising.