The ambulance never came.

Indisputably, life is complicated. However we are increasingly ill-prepared to receive and process complex ideas and problems. The challenges facing the NHS are multifaceted, intricate and blown up to a national scale. The campaign to raise awareness of the damage being down to the health service is often waylaid by an inability to crystallise our concerns into a single message that can penetrate through the spin and lies. Worse, the constant back and forth of statistics and numbers both fatigues the general public and dehumanises the subject matter.

The past few weeks have seen the NHS at a level of crisis like no other in its history. Colleagues across the country are reporting conditions no developed industrial country should ever tolerate in their hospitals.

At this point I would normally bring forth statistics illustrating this disaster: waiting times, trolley waits, operations cancelled, ambulance queues. We’ve all tried that. It’s not working.

So, for a moment, let me simply tell you a story.

You are busy back at work after the New Year, trudging through the piled paperwork eclipsing your desk, when you get a phone call.

It’s your grandmother- she doesn’t feel well. She tells you she has chest pains. Concerned you tell her to call an ambulance straight away. It takes some convincing, but she eventually agrees.

She’s a tough elderly lady, never one to complain. She hangs up the phone and duly dials the ambulance.

You wait a few minutes and then phone her back. She tells you she called and they are on their way. Relieved you tell her to take the mobile you left her, and make sure it’s switched on. You make arrangements to leave work early to get out and see her.

An hour passes. Not hearing anything you phone back on the mobile. It bounces to voicemail. Concerned, you call back the landline. Your grandmother picks up: she’s still at home, waiting. The pain is still there. Maybe a bit more than a twinge. She feels a little sick, couldn’t manage lunch at all. You start to panic a bit, trying to see if there is anyone who can get there to take her directly sooner. You are two hours away. You hang up and dial her GP, not really sure what to do. You end up on hold waiting for a receptionist who eventually tells you to call 999. You try to call 999 but they can only tell you an ambulance is on the way. You hang up and dial again, tell her you’re on your way. She tells you not to fuss but you’re already in the taxi heading to the train station.

You try her landline again before you get on the tube: it’s been nearly two hours now and still no ambulance. You tell her to call 999 again. She says okay. She sounds weak.

The tube journey is the longest and worst of your life. Every extra delay is torture.

You get to the overground station and try her mobile again. No answer. The landline rings and rings. You dial and re dial frantically. There’s no answer. It’s been nearly 3 hours since her call. Sick with worry you bundle onto the train, desperately dialling 999, the police, an old neighbour, anyone you can think will be able to get there sooner. No one can. The train sweeps into the country wrenching your soul as you will it to go faster.

You jump in a taxi at the other end, stuff a twenty into the drivers hand and tell them to get you there as fast as humanly possible. There’s no answer on any line. The taxi driver weaves through traffic and bus lanes and jumps an orange light, screeching to a halt outside your grandmother’s house, just as an ambulance pulls up. It’s been three hours 46 minutes exactly.

Frustrated and driven mad with worry you shout and scream at the crew, who look exhausted and defeated but run up to the door and knock frantically. In the end the door is kicked in by the police. But it’s too late. You find your grandmother sitting on her favourite chair, slumped, ashen, and far too still.

It’s too late.

I work in a heart attack centre. We have strict national targets for patients having acute heart attacks- 90 minutes from arrival to a life-saving procedure to open a blocked heart vessel. We do this because we know every precious minute we wait means more damage to the heart, more risk of heart failure and death. We often get in there a lot sooner- from the moment a patient arrives at the front door a whole cardiac team is waiting for them: doctor, specialist heart nurse, radiographer and specialist cardiac physiologist. While we hear the handover we ultrasound scan the heart, take electrical tracings, blood tests, give blood thinning medication and tubes for giving fluid, examine and explain the procedure and consent the patient. At a clip this whole process takes just five minutes. We then whip the patient into our procedure room, prep the instruments and special tubes we use to access the heart, sterilise the area, hook the patient up to a monitor and blood pressure cuff, give specialist medications and then insert a needle into their wrist, then a sheath then a tube which we thread all the way into the three arteries around the heart. We take x-rays to see where we are going as we inject dye. We then thread a balloon down the tube and inflate it inside the blockage. We put a stent in to keep it open and then we relax.

On good days the patient feels better, the chest pain is gone, the artery is open. A life is saved. The clock says just 50 minutes have passed. We get them a cup of tea.

We do this several times a day, every day, day and night. The system works and it works well. It just needs the resources to run it.

For Marie Norris, the 81-year old lady who died this week 3 hours 46 minutes after calling an ambulance with chest pains we were too late. For her and dozens more, the ambulance never came.

This has been the worst winter in NHS history and we aren’t even at the halfway point yet. It comes at a time when the NHS has never had less resources for its population, never been more understaffed. If the stats and figures and endless spin don’t connect with you, think of this happening to your own grandmother. To you. Is that the country you want? Is that a government you would vote for?

Think about that.

We appreciate your thanks and support, but what NHS staff really want is to be able to do our jobs, to not have to face families who’ve been let down by the system. To not have to explain their loved one died because we couldn’t do enough, because we didn’t have the time or funds or staff. Don’t give us your thoughts and prayers, give us your action, your vote, your demonstrations. Whatever it takes.

Give us, and give yourselves, a chance. A chance more than Marie had.




    • This is an amazing blog post. It gets you thinking and it really is such a sad situation that the country is facing now – no ambulances. I didn’t quite realise how bad the situation was until I saw the BBC documentary series about how they prioritise ambulance calls and some people wait all day to be dismissed off the list. It’s shocking and it’s not what the NHS is all about. We’re so lucky to have it but if we’re not careful it wont look like the NHS we know.

  1. Unconscionable. I’ve just written to my MP (Isle of Wight) about my experience before Christmas. I adapted it from one of the petition letters (38 Degrees). I think you’re right and that it’s the personal stories of failure and death that need to get through. I hope you will forgive me for taking up space but here it is my letter in its entirety – please feel free to cut to the bone to make the point. I’m so incandescent with rage that I can’t think straight to do this myself:

    “Before Christmas, I was dismissed from A&E merely suffering from ‘stress’; no blood was taken and no information of my various disabling conditions that I gave the doctor were noted. I don’t know whether this was because the doctor concerned was simply exhausted, a bad doctor or thought that because I had so many conditions, I must be a fantasist or a hypochondriac. None of those options is acceptable. What he did note were my intermittent symptoms but said I had ‘recovered’ by the time I saw him (the wait was four hours) which was categorically not the case.

    Five days later my sister-in-law had to ring an ambulance and I was told I was extremely poorly when I first arrived, if not close to death, because of a severe lack of electrolytes. Just what a state I was in was reinforced by my doctor after I was discharged and frightened me inordinately. I hadn’t realised just how bad I was and that I had been left in a very dangerous position. This kind of experience is happening all over the country and while your government continues to put their heads in the sand, we are dying. I do wonder whether any of you still have a conscience because from where I’m sitting, the answer is no and not just because of the NHS.

    I’ve always counted on the NHS to provide care for me and my loved ones, particularly as my first incurable autoimmune condition was diagnosed when I was fourteen. But I’m horrified by the news that all hospitals are under such intense pressure. I don’t feel remotely safe. This is unacceptable.

    I understand thousands of operations are being cancelled in order to alleviate the pressure. No one should have to wait for weeks in agony because the NHS is stretched to breaking point.

    As an MP for the Conservative Party, the party in government, I would like you to take your fair share of responsibility to solve this problem. Please, will you do everything you can to help solve it and not just pay lip service to the problem you and your colleagues have created?

    I know you are stepping down ultimately but as your constituent, I expect you to do everything you can while you’re still in the job. I’m writing to request that you ask the government for urgent NHS funding so it can continue to treat patients like me safely this winter. Please let me know what you’re planning to do.


    Sarah Vernon

  2. Hunt and his government should hang their heads in shame… but they don’t care, except of course about Brexit, which will of course ,and already has made the NHS situation worse.

  3. A really powerful and hard hitting blog. I also live in Essex and was saddened to read this story in the local press. Another local lady died after waiting nearly five hours for an ambulance.

    It is awful and these are real people with hopes loves families dreams and then…they are gone.

    Are you Maries grandson or grandaughter?
    Can I share this from you on mylocal f/book page? We need to get people engaged with this issue and wanting to do something about it.

      • As a Paramedic I’m afraid the situation is only going to get worse,as to Ambulance drivers (the title given by Hunt).
        So many good members of staff have left the service due to long shifts 12 hours which can turn into 14 hours easily and four shifts in a row, the job is exhausting and staring Shifts where there are a stack of uncovered calls.
        I work on my own on a rapid response car, and recently my fist patient was waiting 5 hours the second 3 hours And the third 4 hours (none traveled to hospital as other pathways were found. I then had my break and waited 5 hours for Ambulance back up.

        A patient dialled for an ambulance at 10:00 am I started my shift at 4 pm and got this call to this elderly patient at 00:45 disturbing him from his sleep.
        I honestly don’t know what can be done as supply can’t meet demand
        I grieve for these people being let down.
        I myself have been diagnosed with PTSD and have taken early retirement.

  4. I suffered 2 heart attacks in 2010 had the health service been in the state it is now back then I would not be here to comment on the story. Something needs to be done now to sort the health service out, we have fantastic staff at all levels who go above and beyond every shift they need the resources to carry out their vital work.

  5. I think stories hit home more than statistics and figures. I’m currently working in A&E and I was on the Christmas Day shift. I thought it’d be quiet, but there were loads of genuinely sick elderly patients. And outside the department was just an endless sea of parked ambulances. The whole situation looked hopeless…

  6. Sadly I lost my dad a month ago when he wasn’t well and the doctor called for an ambulance which took nearly 2 hours to arrive. In the meantime he suffered a cardiac arrest and although the doctor tried his best with CPR it’s very frustrating to think if the ambulance had taken him to hispital straight away he would be here now. Feel very let down by the NHS at the moment, although I know the staff are giving 110% to try and do their jobs.x x

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