Suicide on the canal tow path

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.

The one job that still gives me flashbacks.

That one job…

Everyone who works in the emergency business has at least ‘one’ job.  You know the one.  The one which keeps coming back in your mind, even years after.  The one that can keep you awake at night and make you question every step of the job and every decision you made.

Mine was several years ago.

It was an ordinary Saturday afternoon.  Myself and my crewmate, Tony, had just cleared from a job.  We were at a hospital not on our usual patch.  To make the eventual comparisons more extreme we had just finished a job which had gone very well.  An elderly male had collapsed.  When we arrived we found he had collapsed due to a low heart rate.  We were able to quickly resolve this with a drug (Atropine) to the point where he looked 100% better, no longer pale and drenched with sweat, and was happily talking to us and his relieved family.  It was a happy family in the ambulance as we took him to the Emergency Department for follow up treatment.

We cleared the job and were passed ‘that’ job.

It was a report of a teenage boy who had crashed a quad bike on farmland.  This was before sat-nav or Google maps and was an area Tony and I were totally lost in.  I contacted the control room and explained we were unfamiliar with the area and asked for backup from any available local crews.  We were told there was no one else.  By now Tony had plotted the best possible route on the A to Z map book and I set off, blue lights and sirens on.  The farm was about 12 miles from where we were.

Soon after setting off we received an update from the control room:  The boy was in cardiac arrest (no heartbeat, no breathing).  His friend, who had called 999, was too distraught to attempt CPR by instruction from the call taker.  We were still about 10 miles away, relying totally on Tony’s map reading ability.  Any light-hearted banter immediately stopped and I started to feel that sinking feeling.

Miles passed and we were heading even further into the wilds toward the farm.  The roads were becoming narrower and bendier so against my desire to get us there I had to slow down – we needed to get there in one piece to be any possible use.  I made a turn as directed by Tony, concentrating on driving yet still mentally preparing for the job ahead, what equipment in what order to get from the ambulance.  The road became narrower; trees were closing in on us on both sides.  I started to doubt Tony’s choice of route, but then a police car closed in behind us, also with blue lights on, obviously heading to the same job, this reassured us both.  Not for long though.  The tarmac finally gave way to compressed mud, a steel bollard in the middle stopping any thoughts of pushing through.

A quick conference with the police officers and they managed to turn in the road and hurtle off to find another route.  I wasn’t so lucky, had to reverse until I found a spot I could turn round in then set off again with Tony sweating once more over the A to Z.  By this time control had found a local crew but asked us to carry on and back them up.

When we arrived the local crew were there and we could tell from their body language and lack of resuscitation activity it was not good news.

The boy had un-survivable injuries from his collision with a stone wall and was dead.  It would have been futile attempting to resuscitate.  By now his parents were there along with the parents of his friend.  Our job now was to try and support the families.  How exactly do you help someone who has just heard out of the blue that their child had been killed in an accident?  That area of our training was and is a bit sketchy.

Later on that day and following days my mind was flooded with the ‘what ifs?’  What if we had known the area and got straight there? What if we had picked a better route and got there earlier?  It goes on…

There was an internal enquiry, Tony and I were found to be totally blameless, anyone who didn’t know the area would have picked the same route we did and met the same steel bollard.  That reassured me a bit but still couldn’t stop thinking that would in no way help the family of the boy.  How does any parent get over the death of their child?

I was offered counselling by the service but foolishly declined – thought the best way to deal was to try and forget by just carrying on.  We even carried on working that day without taking any time out.

A depression settled on me which affected my whole family but still I refused counselling and any professional help.  Instead, once I actually realised there was a problem, I began a long process of self study and read many self-help books.

Many years have passed since that Saturday afternoon and I would say I have learned to deal with it.  It is still etched in my memory in a way that very few jobs are  (I normally can’t even remember details of jobs I did last week) but there is no sinking feeling or feeling of despair and guilt associated with the memory any more, just some residual guilt about the effect on my family.  Maybe the healing process would have been quicker with professional help; probably would have been less damaging to my family.  Maybe it was more thorough thanks to my long process of self helping, maybe all healing has to be done by yourself. Who knows?  I certainly don’t.  I feel strong now and able to cope with whatever the job throws at me, also able to help my colleagues by encouraging them to talk, talk and talk some more.  Talking bad jobs over with your work mates really helps you to put things in perspective and reassures you that your decisions and treatments were sound and that you did the best you could.  I would also strongly recommend anyone accepts the professional help offered.

I still wonder how the family are coping after all this time.