SPOILER ALERT: Some readers may find the content of this post distressing.
It was early one spring morning. Tony and I had been working the night shift, starting at 7pm the previous night. It was 5 o’clock in the morning and we were looking forward to the end of the shift. It was starting to become daylight and there was a mist: the sort of morning that usually precedes a pleasant sunny day. Not that I was planning to see much of the day, I was planning on a nice long sleep today.
We had just finished our break on station and were wondering what our last job of the shift would be. The phone in the mess room rang right on cue (this was the old days where control rang the mess room and a dispatcher spoke to us. Now it’s much more impersonal/’efficient’ with a bleeping of our airwaves handsets). The dispatcher said that she had a report of someone who had hanged himself from a tree on a remote path by the side of a canal. The call may be a hoax, the caller said he was a cyclist who had run into the hanging body and then ended the call. When the call taker tried to ring back for more information the number was unavailable. “Could you go and check it out please?”
We set off, Tony driving and me studying the map book trying to work out the most likely bit of the path to check and the best access point for us. I decided on a car park where a road crossed the canal and the path was accessible. The roads were still fairly quiet and we were there in good time. As we pulled up there was a man sitting on a wall smoking a cigarette, his bike propped next to him. He jumped from the wall and started talking as soon as I opened the ambulance door.
“He’s about half a mile up there. Just hanging from a tree. I didn’t see him, had my head down. I bumped into him, nearly fell into canal. It’s horrible.”
He was obviously distressed and I tried my best to be reassuring as I was getting equipment from the back with Tony to deal with a possible resuscitation. I asked why he had not answered when control rang him back; I said it might have helped him by talking to our call taker as we were on our way. He said he didn’t have a phone and had to flag down a car with a phone (hard to remember the days when we didn’t all have our own mobile phone). The car driver had then driven off once the call had been made.
Tony and I gathered the three bags, cardiac monitor and suction equipment we would need if we were going to start resuscitation. If it came to that, we would then have to figure out how to get the patient back to the ambulance – the tow path we could see was bumpy and narrow – probably too narrow for the stretcher. However, one thing at a time. We set off along the tow path. The mist was quite thick here in the valley by the canal and we couldn’t see very far ahead. The gear was becoming quite difficult to carry now, along the bumpy path and both Tony and my patience were wearing thin, made worse because we didn’t know how far we had to walk.
It seemed very quiet walking in the early morning mist; it would have been a pleasant walk if it wasn’t for what was waiting for us. Eventually, slowly out of the mist a figure hanging from a tree materialised as we approached. It was the most haunting and sad sight I’ve ever seen, still can clearly see it in my mind after all this time. We found a male, in his forties or fifties hanging by a rope from a branch of a tree. It was obvious on examination that we could do nothing for him – he was beyond resuscitation. Once we had made that decision our priority is to shield the patient from public view as much as practical to preserve his dignity and to preserve the scene as much as possible. Until proven otherwise we assume that this is a crime scene and it is important that crime scene investigators can gather all the available evidence with as little contamination by us as possible. We updated control and confirmed the patient was dead and we needed the police to attend as soon as possible. People were walking past occasionally, we did our best to reassure and move them along, we couldn’t do much to shield the patient from view he was right next to the path. About five went past before the police managed to seal that section of footpath. Eventually a police officer arrived and we updated him as he quietly took in the grim view.
A small patch of grass had been trampled flat near the foot of the tree and a collection of cigarette ends was scattered around along with a few empty beer cans. I couldn’t help wondering if the man had sat there smoking and drinking as he contemplated his life. In my vivid imagination I could picture him there. My heart went out to how dejected and desperate he must have felt. Did he come there with the rope intending to end his life or was he just trying to walk off his depression and the rope was already there? An innocent children’s swing which he had decided to use to end his life on a desperate impulse?
When the officer had spoken on the radio with his sergeant we were released from scene after giving him our details. In cases like this crime scene officers would need to see the scene before the patient was moved to ensure there were no signs of foul play; the ambulance service would not be needed to move the patient, the local undertakers would do the job when the police had finished investigating.
I never heard any more about our patient, never got to find out his circumstances. As I write this it is Mental Health Day. I wonder if our patient was getting any support or help with his mental health? How long had things been building up for him? Had he tried to reach out and talk? Had he asked for help? Was there anyone in his life he could talk to?
I sincerely hope that eventually the stigma attached to mental health will be lifted and patients like this one will get help and support to help prevent such a lonely, desperate end to a life.