Before the pirate party last night we had prayers and were assigned our roles for the next day. With Craig incapacitated, Gus relinquished his place in the control room and took a SAR seat on the 212.
I’m sure it was all in the interests of operational efficiency and nothing to do with the fact that he’d spent the entire week so far sitting in a gigantic yellow truck watching the race courtesy of a constantly refreshing satellite feed.
He managed to get out of the control room yesterday and performed the most beautiful maneouvure which was duly reported back to the rest of the team
. Riding out in the back of an aircraft with a pretty young journalist from Scandinavia, he chatted at length about our role and remit as the helo scudded over the sand.
“You’re all so brave…” she gushed, biting her pinky, stroking his chest.
Gus just set his jaw and smiled, the other medics in the helicopter grinned wryly at each other; let the boss have his moment.
Minutes later they were en route to an emergency, a vehicle on fire. The journo fizzed and quivered in her seat, Gus filled her in on the situation – the aircraft would land and he’d get out first, recce the situation and then return for the medics if they were required. It could have been scripted and as the helicopter swooped down onto the dunes, Gus had his hand on the door handle, ready to roll.
No sooner had the skids hit the sand than he had the door open, the howl of the rotors deafening, dust whipped up in storm clouds around them. He swung his feet out of the side door, stepped onto the ground and, head ducked low, began to run from the helicopter towards the crash.
Which should’ve worked well. Should’ve looked amazing. Should’ve sent our blonde pigtailed journalist colleague home with a mental image worthy of any Oliver Stone epic.
Except Gus was still wearing his headset.
And it was still plugged in to the ceiling of the helicopter.
So he only got a few steps away before he ran out of cable, yanking his head and neck back like an errant terrier on a retractable leash.
I’d love to read that journalist’s copy.
At prayers, the story was recounted in detail (with actions!) for the entertainment of the surrounding throng. Gus put his hands up.
“Fair cop. There’s beer in my car for everyone.”
I love working in a team that can laugh at themselves.
Come Thursday morning I was standing on the HLS with Booker and Gus. I wasn’t sure what to make of these two choosing to me to fly with them; either they don’t think I’m a total tool and are happy to work with me, or they’ve heard I’m a screaming incompetent and need to keep an eye on me. Either way, Booker was in a flight suit instead of his normal medics garb.
“I’m working alongisde Gus today, need to learn a bit more about the SAR side of things. So you’re the medic for the helo. If you need anything, tell me and I’ll assist, but other than that, you’re the clinical lead. OK?”
Flying along with us is Laurie the cameraman from earlier in the week and a young photographer who we’ll call Nick (principally because I can’t remember his real name, and also because I think a wee bit anonymity might be nice for the laddie).
The two press guys were strapping themselves into “Monkey Harnesses”, essentially a chest and groin harness similar to those bouncey things you hang babies in in doorways, the strapping allowed them to be secured to the aircraft and hang out of the side door to take pictures and film. Once airborne I watched jealously as they sat on the door sill, feet on the skids, the helo swooping along only a few hundred feet above the racing vehicles below. My bench seat and lap belt on the far side of the aircraft leave me a long way from the action.
We chase cars and bikes for a while, then slide the door closed to cover distances faster,closing on the lead racers. Nick the photographer closes his eyes, wipes cold sweat from his forehead and taps my knee. I look up at his pale face and he mimes opening a bag.
No bother, mate. I grabbed a “SicSac” from the aircraft yesterday, just because its name and design made me laugh. The text on it was lovely “Even veteran air travellers are subject to occasional motion sickness.”
Nick leans over the bag and ralphs his hoop into the bottom of it. The smell is horrendous, I’m not a great one for vomit’s individual bouquet, but here in a hot, vibrating, cramped metal box it’s worse than ever. Booker takes the bag from Nick, ties the top and slings it out of the side window. One advantage of the Empty Quarter is the chances of hitting anyone with puke from above are greatly reduced.
I am deeply, deeply pleased about the fact that I took motion sickness tablets this morning. They mean that I can join in with the “Amused, sympathetic and somewhat world weary” looks and grins that Laurie and Booker are giving Nick. Don’t worry son, happens to everyone, don’t feel bad. Look at me, I’m so at home in this chopper I’m practically in Air Wolf.
We fly some more, Laurie shoots more film, Nick forces himself to take pictures but after twenty or so minutes he scrawls a message on a piece of paper. The resultant conversation was so brilliant, I saved the notes and photographed them once I got home. I share them with you now.
Note one was from Nick to Booker and read:
That’s “When R we going back bivouac?”, for those of you struggling with the handwriting. Note the desperation in his penmanship. Note the phrasing, not “How long are we out for?” Or “What’s our destination?” but “When R we going back bivouac?” Poor guy wasn’t feeling well and wanted to go hoo-oome.
Sadly, a dose of pukey guts isn’t reason for the helo to turn around and take people back to the camp, so Booker compromised with him.
For some reason, the word “Check Point” is abbreviated to “PC” out here. I have no idea why. Unless we’re dropping Nick with a police constable, but I can’t see a reason for that. Making the back of the aircraft smell of spew is hardly an arrestable offence.
Nick gives us the thumbs up at Booker’s suggestion and we start making for the nearest checkpoint. He remained pale and sweaty for the journey, burping and repeating his “bag” mime for us.
I pass the following note to Gus, sitting alongside Raph the pilot.
He adds a simple answer.
I dig in the medical bag and come up with a ziploc bag full of needles and IV dressings. I pour the contents of the start kit back into the rucksack and Booker glares at me, gesturing towards the mess I’ve made of the kit. I remonstrate with him:
(note “#/52″ = weeks, A/L, annual leave)
He grins at me behind his shades. Nick fills the bag with vomit.
Touching down at the checkpoint we watch Nick walk off on wobbly legs and Gus, Booker and I stand in a line, pissing into the sand.
I broach a cheeky subject.
“Strikes me that, with Nick gone, there’s a spare monkey harness and a space on the skids…any chance of a shot?”
Typically Gus, there is no “Yes/No”, but a reserved “I can’t see a problem with that.”
Ya dancer, I’m going to *fly*.
I’m no sooner celebrating being trusted to fly on the skids when we receive a text message – a rider has decked off his bike outside this checkpoint but ridden in regardless. He’s right here, can we check him out?
He’s under a gazebo with his team mates, the same team, as it transpires, as the vocal man who complained so very unpleasantly the night before. The patient is alert and upright, no head or neck pain, but reports coming down hard on his right hand side. I prod and rub his shoulders and collar bones, run my hands down his chest and apologise when he yelps as I push on his ribs. The pain is clearly awful, he grimaces and squints as we walk him towards the helicopter.
Back home I’d shoot him full of morphine to make the journey bearable, but thanks to the UAEs laws regarding benzoes and opiates, we’re stuck with paracetamol and ibuprofen derivatives.
His team mates have already stuck a horse-sized Voltarol down his throat and he’s disappointed to hear that that’s all he’d get from us as well. We sit him on the bench seat, Laurie and Booker sit alongside him and I sandwich myself onto the floor,leaning against the response bag.
No open-door skid riding for Kal today. Can’t help thinking the patient might feel it was a little off that he’s sitting suffering while his medic hangs out in the breeze going “Wheeeeee.”
We all ride in silence, the rotors make conversation near impossible. I write in my note book “Name: DOB: Team: Home Address: Next of kin:” and hand it to the patient to complete. I have no way of gauging his pain other than monitoring his pulse and face. We’re twenty minutes from the hospital.
Ten minutes into the journey I’m aware that Booker, Gus and Raphael are all discussing something in earnest, their hands flying up and down the to “press to talk” buttons in the ceiling that opens comms on their headsets. They’re clearly talking at length, their hands are busier than a group of swotty school children.
I look out the window and realise that while I’ve been focussing on my patient, the conditions outside have deteriorated rapidly. A sandstorm howls along, the wind is high and the loose sand and dust blast against the side of the aircraft. Raphael slows the helicopter down and climbs higher, I assume to avoid the worsening visibility at lower altitudes.
Booker passes me a note:
I nod and watch as Booker shows the patient the same information. The patient, by the looks of things, couldn’t give a shit where we go, just as long as the pain his ribs abates sometime soon.
I’m settling back down for the long flight to the bivvy when Booker hands me a second note.
Now I’m listening, a hot off-load is one where you don’t shut the rotors down before disembarking, just dump the passengers as fast as possible. I’ve been warned about them, warned about the risks of low rotors, about flying debris. I pull my Buff up over my mouth and nose and my goggles down over my eyes. We touch down at speed, the skids bumping and banging on the concrete expanse, nothing else to be seen.
I write a note to Booker and he replies.
The patient doesn’t have a clue what’s going on, we don’t have the time to update him, so the first thing he knows is the aircraft is on the ground and the door is being flung open. I slide out, ducking my head from the blades and reach out for his hand, leading him out onto the tarmac. The briefings are loud in my head and I put my hand on the back of his neck, pushing him into a half stoop and running with him from the aircraft at a ten o’clock angle, just like they said. The noise is deafening, the sandstorm and downwash make visibility almost non-existent. Fifty feet from the heli I turn and look back, expecting to see Booker or Gus following with my kit and jump bag.
I turn in time to see the side door slam and the heli lift off into the sandstorm.
With the downwash gone, things are quieter, but the stinging sand blast of the storm continues to scratch our bare arms and my patient’s face. I look around and get my bearings, we’re in what appears to be an abandoned car park, no cover or shelter, save for a small brick wall over the otherside. I lead my patient to it and we hunker down into the lee of the wind. More comfortable now, thanks to the painkillers, he tells me about his family, his history, his racing career. I’m grateful that he’s so well, my kit is still in the aircraft. I’ve got a stethoscope and a tourniquet in my pockets, so I’ll be fine if he suddenly develops an undiagnosed chest infection, or develops a catastrophic bleed from one of his extremities.
Other than that, I’m screwed. I don’t even have a mobile with me to contact Control. I’ve nothing to do but trust Booker and believe that Patch will arrange an ambulance for me.
And, sure enough, ten minutes of anxious waiting later, a red and white ambulance appears over the horizon, lights flashing and siren howling. I walk my patient across the car park to the vehicle and am met by three members of ambulance staff, a driver and attendant, both in natty wee blue waistcoats. They look a lot like they should be standing at the door of a large superstore, greeting people. In the back is a slightly manic nurse, he leaps from the back door as we approach, an unsheathed cannula in one hand. I back away from the open sharp, the nurse grabs the patient and hustles him towards a spinal board on the floor. My patient isn’t keen and, in fairness, I can’t see a reason to lie him down, since I’ve been marching him around and sitting him up without strapping him to a backboard. The patient pops himself down on the bench seat alongside the stretcher, the nurse sits beside him and I squeeze myself down onto the stretcher. The vehicle is small, laid out similar to mine at home, but without the shiny toys. This is a van for driving people to hospital. I can’t imagine trying to run an arrest in here, I can’t stand up, for one thing, plus with the patient on the floor.
The nurse is staring at me quizzically.
“You are a doctor?”
I shake my head.
“Oh. From America?”
“No, from Scotland.”
“How much money do you earn?”
The patient, a Scotsman now living in UAE is giggling to himself, the nurse persists.
“How much money?”
“But how much?”
“Its ok, it pays my bills.”
“Oh yes. I see.”
I smile at him, pleased we’ve come to an understanding.
“But how much?”
The patient is still laughing, the nurse continues.
“Two hundred? Four hundred?”
“Dirham, or pounds?”
“In a year?”
“In a month. How much dirham in a month?”
I do the maths and tell him. His eyes turn to saucers. He tells me he earns 400 dirham a month. That’s roughly 80 quid.
We’re at the hospital in fifteen minutes, a welcoming committee of nurses and orderlies stand in a polite line outside the entrance to the emergency room. Smiling as they are, my patient seems a little apprehensive and reaches out for my sleeve.
“You’re sticking with me, mate, right?”
In fairness, I don’t know where I am, I have no car, no phone, no money, no contact details for any members of my team and there’s a force 9 sandstorm blowing outside. I couldn’t go anywhere if I tried.
The patient is taken into a room with a smiley wee lady who introduces herself as “Sister Dahlia”. She’s friendly and welcoming, greets me by namem explains that “Mr Sean” (Patch) has phoned ahead and alerted them to our impending arrival.
A group of nurses start to undress the patient and I can feel myself getting sidelined; I remember watching Christina in hospital earlier this week and have my lines all ready.
“Can I speak to a doctor, please?”
Sister Dahlia nods and smiles, shouts down the corridor and a doctor in a white coat strolls into the room. He listens politely to my handover, has a brief chat with the patient and then turns to me.
“I think xrays of wrist, arm, shoulder and chest. Do you agree?”
Uhhh….I drive a van, mate. Sure, why not?
The patient is rolled away to Xray and I take a seat in the corridor, a nurse brings me a glass of iced water and I catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror – goggles and face mask, desert camouflage and huge sand boots, my face still bearing the daft wee pirate moustache and van dyke I shaved into it for last night’s party. I look like an villain from a Biggles novel, or a 1930s boys’ adventure annual.
Sister Dahlia chats to me while we wait for the patient to return with his films, she tells me that the hospital is fully equipped to supply a wide range of services, but the lack of skilled staff means that they’re limited to running a basic A&E and GP service. Upstairs there’s operating theatres, ICUs (adult, paediatric and neo-natal) and rehabilitation wards. All lying empty.
“How come?” I ask “Can’t you afford to staff it?”
“We can afford it, but they’re not interested…this country, they put up buildings, build these hospitals and once they’re done, they don’t want to keep them running. We do what we can, but….”
She flaps her hands in an exasperated gesture, just another health care worker struggling to do the best job with limited resources.
An orderly rolls my patient back down the corridor, an envelope of xrays tucked under his arm. I’m invited into the doctor’s office to review the films.
I’m no radiographer, this isn’t my area at all, but the doctor’s concludes that nothing appears broken, that the chest pain is “probably just cartilage damage” and that his aching shoulder isn’t, as we feared, a sprung AC joint.
The doctor leads me into his office where the patient is sitting fearfully, he listens to the doctor’s diagnosis and, after each statement turns to me with a question on his face. I nod along, reassure him. We come to the end of the consultation, the doctor writes up a prescription and the patient asks me “Is that ok? Will that work?”
The orderly goes to resecure the sling around the patient’s aching shoulder and struggles with the design, unfamiliar with the arrangement of straps and velcro. The patient leans back in the chair, looks over the orderly’s shoulder and catches my eye.
“Kal? Mate? Please?”
I tighten the sling up, support the arm. I’m humbled and flattered by the level of trust he places in me. We walk together back to the waiting room where I bump into Gus, who’s driven up to collect me. I get him up to speed on the patient’s situation and ask if there’s anyway we can give him a lift back to the bivouac.
“There’s only two seats, mate…” he begins, glancing at the patient sitting on the plastic chairs, looking sorry for himself. Sister Dahlia approaches and I break out my “charming young man” role.
“Sister Dahlia, I want to thank you and your staff for looking after me and my patient so well this afternoon. Really, your service has been outstanding.”
I turn to Gus and fix him in the eye.
“I’m assuming we still have emergencies outstanding, boss?”
He looks at me blankly for a moment before my insistently raised eyebrows get the message through.
“Oh. Oh. Yeah, yeah we do…”
I turn back to Dahlia.
“Sister, we have a number of other patients that we need to attend to, but this patient here needs a ride back to our bivouac at Tal Mareeb. Is there anyway you could organise transport back for him?”
“Of course!” she beams “I will arrange an ambulance immediately.”
Gus and I shake hands with Dahlia and our patient and head back out to Gus’ car, he laughs and shakes his head at me as we drive back to the bivi and at prayers that night, after fines, I’m given “kudos to Kal, for blagging an ambulance for his patient.”
There’s worse things to be in this world than a charming young motherfucker, every now and again it pays off in spades.
We wrap up the evening with cold beers, I’m disheartened to hear that I’m back on sweep for the final day; I don’t relish another day baking in those trucks, but the job rolls on. We finish tomorrow in Abu Dhabi and I spend the evening packing my gear, ready to load onto a truck that Baz will drive to the finish line for us. I settle onto my cot for the last time, sleeping soundly through the roaring engines and diesel fumes. I’m woken in the night by a mouse who scampers over my sleeping bag and perches on my legs…and to think I was worried about scorpions and camel spiders.
A mouse? I can handle a mouse.