Ambulance on BBC1 shows us people at their very best

It’s so moving watching human beings help to save the lives of others, says Alison Graham

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By Alison Graham

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I am scrupulously tidy – you should see my desk, it’s spotless, even my paperclips are arranged neatly. And I routinely clean coasters because I can’t bear the rings made by coffee mugs and glasses of water. Yes, I know. What an idiot.

So it does me good in so many ways to watch Ambulance (Thursday BBC1), an absolutely excellent observational documentary series that follows the paramedics and control-room personnel of the West Midlands Ambulance Service.

For me it’s essential viewing, because this is life and it’s messy. People are in trouble, they are lonely, they are struggling to breathe after a catastrophic heart attack, they are having babies. It’s all here and the way everyone in the service reacts is magnificent.

I adore paramedic Mick, who’s 71. He retired from the ambulance service, decided he missed the life, and returned. He’s adamant he’s here to stay. Mick is the kind of man you want to have around if you are injured or dying. And I am in no way being facetious when I say you will want Mick around when you are dead.

There’s the most touching scene in this week’s episode when Mick and his partner are called to a cardiac arrest. They are too late; the man, a 56-year-old cancer patient, had a do-not-resuscitate order in place, and has died. There’s nothing anyone can do.

But Mick, with the most exquisite kindness, gently lifts the dead man’s head and closes his mouth, “for the family”. Mick, with utmost gentleness, has bestowed dignity. It’s so moving watching one human being carry out this small act for another, someone who is forever beyond knowing and caring. (Before anyone starts frothing, we never see the dead man’s face. His privacy remains intact.)

Ambulance is full of people dealing with the worst by being their very best. We see an operator in the control room leave her desk to cry quietly and privately after she’s been yelled at by a man over the phone. He was clearly in extremis, saying his wife had suffered a “wound to the throat” but he was so abusive the controller felt she couldn’t do her best to help.

That’s another thing, the life-saving advice given over the phone. If you’d been called and told that someone else was dying, at that very moment, you’d surely want to make it someone else’s problem. Or you’d drop the phone and run away, screaming.

In Ambulance, it’s the controller’s problem, he or she gives advice on CPR and stays on the line until help arrives. I can’t imagine what that must do to you.

There are glimpses, too, of people bearing great illness with incredible grace. This week an ambulance is dispatched to help Nigel, who is in severe pain in the advanced stages of cancer, and he’s brilliant. In the back of the ambulance on the way to hospital Nigel talks cheerfully to the paramedic about how making financial provision for his children has made him happy. He’s ready to face what’s coming.

I can’t bear the phrase “battling cancer”, because it’s not a battle, it’s not something that can be won by sheer willpower or lost through lack of effort. Just look at Nigel, you’ll see what I mean.

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Ambulance continues on Thursday 7th September at 9pm on BBC1