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Crossroads

He’s elderly, but not old. 70s, I guess. He’s slumped on the floor in the kitchen and it’s clear he’s been there for some time. He’s cold, stiff, dead. He’s the first dead person I’ve seen and I’m here as the professional. I’m a volunteer who, just a year or so ago, hadn’t done any first aid never mind anything else. Now I’m here and a stranger’s leading me to the point where he found my first dead guy. It’s clear that he’s long gone, but as this is my first I don’t dare rely on my instincts so I do what I think I need to do. I cut away his shirt, attach the defib and literally go through the motions until backup arrives, almost half an hour later. When they arrive the sweat is running off me from the CPR and the crew immediately stop me, confirming what I knew from the start.

I don’t know how old she is, maybe 40? She’s lying on the bed in her ground floor flat. I’m not there for long because the crew don’t need my help as the only thing left to do is paperwork. She’s clearly been there for a while. There’s post-mortem staining on her legs where gravity has drawn her blood downwards. Her stomach is bloated, probably from the gases as her body has started to decompose.

He’s lying on the floor in his front room. This one’s fresh, he was talking to his family less than an hour ago. They visited him because he said he wasn’t feeling well, and they found him on the floor. I guess he’s in his 70s though I have no idea really. When I arrive the crew is already working on him. The ET tube and cannula are in. The crew ask me to set up their suction, but it’s not a unit I’m familiar with so I can’t. I offer to take over compressions to free up the crew member to sort out suction. I kneel over him and spend the next 30 minutes looking around the room, at the blank TV, the window, the cards and trinkets on the mantlepiece. I look everywhere for as long as I can. But doing the job I’m doing I know I have to look at him every so often. I have to see if there’s any sign of life. I look down and all I see is the thousand yard stare. The look of death. His eyes are pinpoints, looking but not seeing. The need for suction is also hanging in the air. He’s vomited, a lot. After what seems like forever — my back aches and my shoulders hurt — the crew agree that there’s nothing more that can be done.

“Will you be ok?”

“Yes, but I don’t want to be the first person to walk past the family.”

They talk to the family. They explain that there’s nothing more to be done. They remove the ET tube, the defib pads, the cannula, everything medical. They cover him up and make him look as comfortable as possible for someone who died on his living room floor. I leave the room and walk between them, the tears already flowing. Dad’s dead. I tell them I’m sorry and they thank me for trying. Like most people I see, I don’t think they realise that I do this as a volunteer, not that it should matter to them.

Before I started as a CFR I hadn’t seen a single dead person. Now I’ve seen three, all in different situations and states. The calls themselves don’t really bother me. You have a job to do and you get on with it. The problem is when the calls cross with real life.

She lies on the floor, the open bottle of pills lying in her half-closed hand. I can see she’s been fitting because I can still see the traces of foam around her mouth. I cut away her blouse and get down to skin. I do my checks for jewellery, patches etc. I attach the pads and set up the oxygen while the defib does its analysis. I do everything my training has taught me, but ultimately I can’t get away from the fact that I know her face. I know her. I knew her. She was 28.

That last case hasn’t happened, yet. I fear it, though, so much so that I was in tears the other evening just thinking about it. Will it prevent me from carrying on doing what I do? Would I choose to not do something if I was in this situation?

Well, no.

What’s the alternative? Not being there?

No thanks.

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