On foot I reached the traffic lights in no more than five minutes. I had just passed them a matter of seconds before I heard a bang and a screech of brakes. Involuntarily I crouched, an instinctive shielding reaction, before turning round and taking in the accident scene in front of my eyes. I rushed over, unsure at first in the dark of what the form was that lay in front of the car. My heart sank with the realisation that it was a small woman rather than a large dog. Frantically but futilely searching for my cell phone, I shouted to the driver of the car to call an ambulance immediately. I looked to the side of the road and asked a younger man also to call an ambulance. Both did. The whole thing took seconds and hardly added any substantive time to the five minutes it took me to cover the ground from my home to the scene where I was now standing. If it was not 5 to 7, it was no more than 4 to. When the ambulance eventually arrived I checked my watch and it was just after 7.30.
I had some first aid experience, acquired about 7 years ago but my mind seemed blank when I tried to apply it as I knelt down to help the woman on the ground in front of me. My instinct was to lift her but something kicked in, checking any intention I might have had to do just that. Her airways were clear and she seemed to have fortuitously landed in the recovery position. The blood flowing from beneath her head alarmed me. It appeared viscous and I panicked at the possibility that she might bleed out on me and I was lost as to what to do. I thought that at some point I might have to move her head in order to stem it. By this time others were at my side, unwittingly calming me down as I tried calming her. Others began traffic management.
Dazed but conscious the accident victim was repeating “oh my God.” I contemplated whispering an Act of Contrition in her ear although I was not sure I could remember it any better than I could my erstwhile first aid skill. What dissuaded me was not my total lack of religious belief but a memory from my past when along with Jim Todd I had been knocked off a tyreless bike in Cromac Street. An Act of Contrition was whispered in my ear, which caused me to jump up in fear that there might be something seriously wrong with me. God was alright in those days but I was not ready to make his acquaintance just yet. The prayer sent more adrenalin shooting through my veins than the shot of brandy somebody poured down my throat in the Trocadero Bar minutes later as we lay sprawled in the lounge seats to which we had been carried to await the ambulance which did not take half an hour to arrive if my memory is reliable. The stricture against moving accident victims was much less observed in those days. In any event had I felt the prayer would have been of comfort to the woman I would have said it without hesitation. It was not the time to stand on principle.
As we waited we kept the woman talking. She told us her name and that she had just turned 80. She seemed remarkably calm compared to my agitated state. I noticed some paper money lying on the ground beside her and lifted it and asked the man beside me to hold onto it. He declined. I later wondered why I passed it to him. He could do no more with it than I could. Confusion and indecision reigned. I placed it in her coat pocket and later informed her son when he arrived on the scene.
Still no ambulance. Shock was turning to anger. The Garda arrived after about 10 to 15 minutes, saw that she was being attended to and began their investigation, acquisitioning the car keys and securing the scene. There was little else they could do at that stage. And it wasn’t long before I could sense their frustration that no ambulance had yet arrived. Somebody said it was coming from Navan, more like Kerry it seemed to me. I overheard a garda say after about 20 minutes that it was now at Duleek. Those gathered at the scene were voicing their dismay.
The night was chilly, and the injured woman was complaining of the cold but her bleeding seemed to have slowed to a trickle. She needed something beneath her to prevent the cold coming up from the road but we were unable to move her. At somebody else's suggestion, I took off my coat and placed it over her. Other coats quickly followed while the number of men standing in shirt sleeves increased proportionally. We engaged her in conversation, doing our utmost to ensure she stayed with us. We got her children’s names and phone numbers. By now I had found my phone, inwardly cursing myself for not having the presence of mind to locate it in the first place. I rang her daughter but got no answer. A neighbour rushed off to find the daughter. We spoke to the frail victim, stoked her face, tried reassuring her and made sure to be out of her earshot before fuming about a health care system that was so tardy that an 80 year old woman was compelled to lie on a cold road in the middle of winter for so long without proper medical attention.
By now a young woman had approached. She was on her way to a work out. Calmly she asked what had happened and immediately took control. Easing herself down beside the injured woman, she began a conversation. It was almost melodic in its ability to soothe. Carefully she checked and probed, at all times seeking to increase the comfort level of the injured woman. She not only soothed her but us as well. More people than just I commented to her after it on how calming an influence she had been. Some people just have that ability to read a stressful situation and master it. I am not one of them.
The Garda took details, seeming dismayed that none of us had actually witnessed the accident. But I could only tell them what I saw, not what I didn’t see. While a few feet from it my back was to the accident.
When the ambulance arrived the medical team expertly strapped the woman into a stretcher and took her to hospital accompanied by her son. Tonight I heard that she was recovering. I had feared that if the accident didn’t see her done for then something like pneumonia might, she had lay on a hard cold road for so long. On arrival in the house I took a large whiskey to bring me down. My wife and a friend who dropped by settled my nerves but not the anger.
Thinking about it today, I am less agitated but no less angry about what I witnessed last evening. While I did not see the accident I did witness an alarming lack of alacrity in terms of response time. The ambulance people were certainly not to blame. It is not as if they were playing snooker in the mess and decided to finish the game before hitting the road. This is a systemic failure to deliver proper healthcare at the point of first contact in accident and emergency.
Having spoken today to Anthony Connor, a former member of the Ambulance Crisis Forum, it is clear there is a serious problem about which I would like to write more in a separate piece. The big issue at the minute is a lack of beds in the Lourdes Hospital, leaving people to spend inordinate amounts of time on trolleys in corridors. But even if the beds crisis is resolved what use will it be if the ambulance system is not fit for purpose to get them to hospital on time? Ambulances are meant to be life enhancing machines, not carts for collecting the dead.
The political elite often tell us about the need to tighten the belt to prevent squander and increase efficiency. What happened last evening on the Beamore Road was anything but efficient. A woman’s life could have been squandered as a result of an inefficient service. It is not good enough. The implicit systemic disrespect for one of our most vulnerable, an elderly citizen, is a damming indictment of a government that has the audacity to claim it is caring. If it does care it is for banking cartels not burdened citizens.