I have to admit, I’m not short of those. The two Richards, both of whom are accomplished and professional Paramedics in their own rights, each with a very different style. Andrew, Sharon and a whole host of others in Mountain Rescue. The other Richard who introduced me to London’s flavour of EMS work. My grandmother, a Nursing Auxiliary during the war who dispensed her own flavour of rough justice and maldod in my childhood. Malcolm, who got me involved in Mountain Rescue in the first place.
But I was looking for that person. You know, the one that made me stop and think. The one that inspired me to start down this path. And I have to admit that almost everyone in that list helped me get where I am and they may well deserve their own Portrait, but they didn’t give me that first spark.
That accolade goes to someone who didn’t really feature in that list. My grandfather.
Born in 1918 he grew up in the Welsh valleys where coal mining was The Industry. Brighter than the average my grandfather went to nightschool to learn to be a Mining Surveyor and made a career of it. He took a few years out to work for the Royal Engineers in India during the war but came back and worked in the mines in south Wales for most of his career. When I knew him, he was silver-haired and retired, spending much of his time working hard in the garden that was once a coal tip but now bloomed after his hard work. Like a lot of people his age he was a heavy smoker and I distincly remember him suffering from his angina. The little red bottle sprayed under the tongue and the pause while he waited for his heart to catch up.
I have nothing but fond memories of my grandfather. My parents both worked office jobs so when I came home from school, I would spend a few hours with my grandparents just a few hundred yards down the road from our home before my parents picked me up. He gave me my frist car, he taught me to write. He once told me that I could do anything if I worked hard and whatever it was I wanted to do, that he would support me – words that still echo in me today.
It all went wrong one Saturday in May. I remember I called into the house to say hello before I headed out for the day. My grandfather was in bed with my grandmother fussing over him. He just didn’t feel very well, nothing specific, known in the ambulance service as “generally unwell”. He looked pale, enough so that I asked him if he was OK. I asked if they’d rung the doctor but my grandfather insisted he was fine. I was 17 and didn’t really appreciate how people lie, even to their loved ones. I took his word at face value and went out to see my friends figuring it was something minor like it always had been in the past.
It was probably mid afternoon when I had a phone call. My grandfather was ill, the doctor had been called, I should come home, post haste. Grumbling, not realising the severity of the problem, I drove down to my grandparents house where it rapidly became apparent how serious it was. Our local GPs, two brothers, were the sons of the husband-wife pair who’d run the local practice before them. One of them was a cardiac specialist and he’d immediately called 999 for an ambulance, recognising the problem with my grandfather for what it was. I was sent to the bottom of the road to direct the ambulance. I windmilled for my life when I saw it and raced up the road behind it as quick as I could. I have no memory of seeing my grandfather going into the ambulance and my next memory of that day is my grandmother, flustered. My grandmother was never flustered. This was serious.
My father drove us into the local hospital 15 minutes drive away. It was a quiet journey, each of us contemplating the worst. We arrived and headed into A&E where they directed us to the Coronary Care Unit. We walked in and were ushered in quickly to see my grandfather sat up in bed smiling at us, connected up to a hundred cables. We crowded around, holding his hand and chatting quietly. My fears abated, we laughed and joked and said that we’d see him tomorrow.
The next half hour is perfectly clear. I was the last to leave and as I walked out my father was waiting for me. The doctor crossed the room in the corner of my eye and clearly called my granfathers’ name, questioningly. We walked down the corridor and my father met a friend and said he’d meet us in the car. I walked my now-much-releived grandmother out to the car and my father joined us about 10 minutes later – and asked us to come back in. The nurse had asked him to get us. Emotions running wild, we went back to CCU and were ushered into what I now know is the relatives’ room. A nurse came in to say that the Doctor was on his way and my grandmother looked her in the eye.
“He’s gone, hasn’t he?”
She paused. “Yes, i’m afraid he has, love. Doctor will be in to talk to you in a minute.”
The next bit was a blur. I have no idea what the doctor said but I remember going to visit the body, the shell, the sleeping form that was once my grandfather. I remember my grandmother taking his signet ring from his finger and wrapping my hand around it. “It’s yours now.” she said, shakily.
My grandfather had held on until we came to say goodbye to him – at least that’s how I like to think of it. Losing him tore me apart, he was a huge part of my life and I drifted through my A-levels in a daze. To this day, I still miss him sorely.
The signs were all there. When I saw him he was pale enough that an alarm bell rang in my head, but was dismissed when he said he was OK. He was sweaty. He had a feeling of being “just not quite right” and couldn’t shake it all day. He had a history of unstable angina, and was a heavy smoker. If someone described that situation to me now, I’d call an ambulance and give him half an aspirin. I’d ask about chest pain. I’d igore his insistence that he was fine.
My grandfather wasn’t some medical genius, a world-leading surgeon or medical scientist. He was a retired mining surveyor. He didn’t show me any amazing medical procedures. What he made me do was promise to myself that I’d never miss that again. If only we’ve have received some basic lessons in recognising these things at school or anywhere. I didn’t see it. I kicked myself for months that I could have done something but didn’t.
Eventually I accepted the situation, but every decision I’ve made since that saw me doing anything medical stems from that one event. From the knowledge that I could have done more if only I knew. A promise to myself and to him that I will work hard. So that hopefully, one day, I’ll turn up in time to help someone else’s grandfather.