From births and car accidents to heart attacks and suicides, the paramedics in BBC1’s extraordinary, Bafta-nominated documentary Ambulance work with people who are on the edge of life every day. As the series returns for its third run on Thursday night, one woman stands out among the saviours in green: Natalie Greaves.
Natalie, 39, was inspired to join the West Midlands Ambulance Service after the incredible work paramedics had done for her daughter, Jessica. Having been starved of oxygen during complications at birth, Jessica has cerebral palsy and is unable to walk, talk or feed herself.
It was Natalie’s own experience of calling 999 when Jessica was not breathing or experiencing fits – due to epilepsy that she also developed – that made Natalie want to become a paramedic. “I was just in awe of what they did,” she tells me.
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Natalie’s home and professional lives collide in the first new episode of Ambulance, when on Jessica’s 16th birthday she receives a call from her daughter’s carer saying she’s gone “completely floppy and not responding”. Almost simultaneously, a call comes through from the ambulance controllers, sending the job through to Natalie and her work partner.
“It was very strange,” Natalie recalls. “Jessica was the ‘category two unconscious patient’ call that I received. That was my child.”
She decided she couldn’t take the call because, “I couldn’t be the paramedic – I had to be her mum.” Instead, she rushed to the hospital to meet Jessica there while another, much closer crew was sent to the scene.
Watching the episode back and seeing herself so distressed was difficult, Natalie admits: “It’s very hard to see yourself so upset. It was a hard watch.” After Natalie spent the night in hospital at her daughter’s bedside, Jessica was stable enough to return home.
Being a paramedic is tough enough as it is without having to deal with one of your children falling ill, as Ambulance ably demonstrates: Natalie’s first job on her first shift back, the day after Jessica’s night in the hospital, is a hanging.
Natalie remembers that the suicide took place on Blue Monday in January – claimed to be the most depressing day of the year. It was a man in his 40s living in total squalor with several malnourished pet dogs, no heating, minimal lighting and no suicide note.
It was the first hanging Natalie had ever seen and she says it’s one of the cases that has played on her mind ever since. “It was a different feeling to other jobs,” she says. “I couldn’t help him. For me, I struggled with that because it was all too late and I think as a paramedic you’ve got that instinct to get in there and help somebody.
“My only comfort was that it was what he wanted and actually he wasn’t suffering anymore,” she says. “And sometimes we can’t help as much as we want, we just can’t.”
It’s this feeling of helplessness and relinquishing control, as opposed to the blood and the mess, that Natalie says makes for the most distressing jobs. She describes one case of a lonely, elderly couple as the most upsetting of her five years in the service. Natalie arrived at the house of two 90-year-olds, who had been married for 70 years. The husband had died overnight in his armchair and, after finding him dead, his wife had sat with him all day, holding his hand, bringing him breakfast and tea, just as she had done for the past seven decades.
“She’d kept him there all day because she didn’t want him to go,” Natalie says. “She had nobody else in the world, she had no family. I remember leaving that lady, and it broke my heart because she had nobody in her world and 70 years had gone.
“That’s when I find jobs really, really hard. The aftermath of these tragic events. But you have to let go.”
Although there are a lot of bleak cases, there are huge highs that make the job worthwhile. Natalie tells me a story of bumping into someone’s daughter three months after she saved their mother who was in cardiac arrest. The woman said: “Thank you for giving me my mum back. I’ll never forget you.”
Her training as a paramedic also makes Natalie feel better equipped to care for Jessica – although her husband sometimes tells her that she “knows too much” because as a medical professional, she is now hyper aware of Jessica’s state and worries more.
Natalie’s motto to get her through the rough and the smooth is: “Be fabulous.” It’s how she keeps her spirits high and shakes off one job to throw herself into the next. And fabulous, she certainly is.
Ambulance begins on Thursday 26th April at 9pm on BBC1