“I was out picking peas when I got the call”

Jan is a volunteer ambulance driver on Hoy. When on call, he carries a bleep 24 hours a day and responds, when an ambulance is needed, as one of the four volunteer-manned emergency services on the island. I met Jan a few weeks ago as we transferred an elderly lady with an exacerbation of severe obstructive lung disease to the hospital on the Orkney mainland...

As the decision for admission was made, the ferry timetable was checked; there was a service in 40 minutes...we should make it. Having been aware of the volunteer-led service on the island, I had expected our ride to be more amateur in its appearance; perhaps we would travel in the back of a land rover (my secret hope) or spread out on cushions in the boot of a neighbour’s Volvo estate...Alas, no, an ambulance was what we’d ordered and an ambulance we got.

Following the stretcher carrying our patient, I was bundled into the back with the task of monitoring her oxygen levels on the journey. “Keep them below 90 and watch out for the waves!” came my happy instruction as the door was closed and we were on our way.

My excitement and enthusiasm quickly gave way to nausea with the combination of Orkney roads, no window and the need for regular pulse oximeter checking . I am now quite perplexed at how paramedics cope so well. Needless to say, my request to open the doors at the ferry terminal to “let the patient get some fresh air” probably wasn’t a completely honest one but I felt any precaution made against my vomiting in the back would be mutually beneficial for us both. As the patient smiled and asked for another blanket, I suspected she’d sussed me out. Finding myself now in the back of an ambulance off the road but on the deck of a ferry did wonders for the queasiness and as seawater poured over the rail with every dip, I began to understand the reference to waves.

I was impressed at how efficient the journey had been so far, we’d made good time and stepped on to the main island an hour after making the call. The next step was unfortunately not as smooth. Having called ahead, we had not only arranged admission with the Medical team but had also requested an ambulance to come from the hospital, meet us at the ferry and take the patient the rest of the way, thus allowing the volunteer team from Hoy to return home on the ferry. The Kirkwall ambulance’s delay in arriving meant a missed boat and a three hour stay on the mainland. For me, it was a day at work spent catching up with actual shops in Kirkwall (!) but for Jan it was 5 hours spent unplanned away from home on his day off.

The added time gave me a chance to chat more to Jan; to try to understand what the responsibility of his role meant to him, to his community and the effect it had on the rest of his life. He spoke of the constant balance between the occasional disruption to his life but great pleasure at being able to be there for his community; he recounted the joy at bringing people back recovered to their homes after stays in hospital and described the trauma of attending the scene of accidents involving people he cared for.

Tomorrow I'll meet with the full crew and explore their answers to these questions...I'll keep you updated.

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