The life of a paramedic is a difficult one: long, irregular hours; high-pressure work; and, of course, constant encounters with serious injuries, physical and mental illness, and death.
Benjamin Gilmour captures all this, and more, in his bittersweet memoir. Gilmour, who's been an ambulance worker for 22 years, writes of his experiences in Sydney during the summer of 2007-8. He took detailed then and had a draft finished in 2009, but felt the material was too sensitive to publish it so soon. A decade later, he decided enough time had passed to publish, although there's the standard disclaimer about changing various factual and chronological details.
Even so, the book rings emotionally true and what it depicts is all too convincing. Gilmour vividly evokes the physical and emotional toll of the constant stream of cases he attends that include drug overdoses, suicides, falls, emergency births, injuries, wounds and self-harm. There are also the fakes and nuisances like the woman who wants a lift to the shops and people overreacting to the most minor of ailments.
Two sorts of emergencies affect Gilmour the most. One of the most difficult to deal with emotionally are the patients who have heart failures, as there's a very low rate of success in saving their lives. Then there are the frequent calls to the ocean cliff called The Gap from which many people have jumped, or are about to do so. Gilmour and his colleagues frequently have to talk depressed and despairing people out of a jumpor deal with the aftermath (fatal or not).
Gilmour talks frankly about how all this has had an impact on him and how hard it can be to maintain the mix of compassion and professional detachment essential to the job. He's exhausted, depressed and often cranky - and it's led to a separation from his partner Kaspia, but although he broods about this, he is hopeful they will eventually reconcile. We also hear about his regular ambulance partners, including prankster Jerry and, most significantly, John, who's also been left by his partner and is devastated.
The stories Gilmour relates are sometimes tragic, sometimes darkly funny - and gallows humour among ambos is a survival tactic frequently resorted to, understandably so - but all the little vignettes of humanity are affecting. He also talks about why, despite all the difficulties and sacrifices, he continues his work.
We do find out about the resolution of the two breakups but, like Gilmour himself, can only wonder about the fate of so many of the patients he treated with as much skill and empathy as he could muster. This is a poignant, highly readable account of a man doing essential but trying work.