Summer’s coming so I’ll warn you now: try not to get seriously injured or ill in August. August is the month the medical students are released into the hospital as fully-fledged doctors. And to make matters worse, their first job is often on the crash team. In other words, they are your last bastions of hope, your final hand-hold on this mortal coil if you have the misfortune of going into cardiac arrest. If I were you I would just stay dead. I would want to be resuscitated about as much as I would want someone to mutilate my dead body.
Working on the crash team--especially in those first few weeks of medical responsibility--is the one time I actually feel like I’m in an episode of ER. The rest is a grim mosaic of abusive vomiting drunks, suicide, and the elderly. The crash bleep goes off and a voice commands, “Crash call, ward five!” I leap up and run, pushing people out of my way down the hospital corridors, as the five other members of the crash team join me until we’re running in unison like a scene out of Baywatch, transported into the whitewashed hospital ward. Everyone watching thinks I’m about to do that hero thing where I miraculously zap someone back to life, and at that moment a small part of me believes I might too.
Then I draw back the curtain and I may as well wheel that sorry fucker straight to the morgue. He’s so dead his lips look like condoms full of frozen mince and he’s virtually stiffening as we set up the crash trolley. We go through the violent motions of compressions, adrenaline, shocks, but it’s about as useful as handing the corpse your keys and asking it to feed your cats because you're going out of town. Basically, we’re just beating the shit out of a dead body.
Everyone sees the crash cart and thinks of that moment in many, many movies when the pretty young patient is straddled by Dr. Dreamboat as they hurtle down the corridor, him erotically pumping on her bosom until she suddenly wakes in a flurry of gratitude, thanking the kind doctor with a kiss. This never happens. They all die. In TV soaps, 70 percent of patients make a full recovery after CPR and walk out the hospital. In reality, about one percent of resuscitation attempts are successful, with all ending up bruised, usually with broken ribs, many ending up permanently vegetative. Four minutes after the heart stops beating oxygen-starved brain-cells begin to die off. After ten minutes, brain death is certain.
My last turn on the crash team was the most farcical. The death bleep sounded at about 4 AM. One of us was asleep and ran to the ward forgetting to put his shirt back on, another turned up with half-eaten McDonalds, and the junior was late because she was so terrified of getting to the patient first and not knowing where to start.
He was a 70-year-old with a history of heart problems butwe still beat at his chest, electrocuted him, and stabbed him with needles for 45 minutes like masochists. Finally we decided it was the last round of shocks but we must have missed something, because after what would be an unbearably painful experience if he was conscious, he cries, “Uh, bugger me!” then promptly dies. That was definitely a first.
I am probably racking up over 100 crashes and I’ve only seen one person come back. And I’m a good doctor. Promise. She collapsed in the outpatient waiting room. We shocked her 16 times until her heart limped back into action and we all looked round completely surprised. It was a moment of glory. Two days later I bump into her in the cardiology ward and she looks like shit. She’s covered in bruises, with two fractured ribs and is suffering with severe anxiety from the trauma. And worst of all she didn’t even recognize me, let alone give me a high-five and a whopping reward for saving her sorry ass. Oh well.