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‘We break…we burnout’

Debbie Wilkinson, Unite rep, Friday, February 2nd, 2018

My name is Debbie Wilkinson and I have been an NHS paramedic in Leeds for 27 years. I once worked out that means I have attended 999 calls at over 35,000 addresses!


It’s a job I love and am very proud to do and I know that both me personally and my profession are truly respected and trusted by the general public. The NHS is a family and as a paramedic I work closely with my colleagues here – doctors, nurses and all manner of hospital staff, care teams and colleagues in the community.


Pride in our profession links us all together but also in today’s NHS, so do feelings of frustration, helplessness and guilt.


We attend a 999 call – on blue lights and sirens – which is stressful enough.


We get to our destination and usually the first thing we are greeted with is – “I’ve been waiting hours for an ambulance.” We are literally the front line and as much as people tell us that “we know it’s not your fault” – we feel incredibly guilty and have to bear the brunt of their frustration. There just simply aren’t enough of us.


Big responsibility

Yet, the relief on people’s faces when we do turn up – is palpable and that is a big responsibility. They put their lives and that of their family members literally in our hands and they all tell us – “you’re not paid enough for what you do”.


The elderly patient lying on the floor for hours because they aren’t a high priority call – yet they may have a fractured hip, have had a stroke or are just unable to get up.


However, we will now have to take them to A&E even if they’re uninjured because they’ve had a ‘long lie’. We experiment with falls teams – to respond to these patients and get them up off the floor safely and quickly – so we can leave them at home.


But it all costs money – money which Trusts don’t have or that would have to be diverted from somewhere else.


We also know we can’t leave these patients at home – because social care isn’t in place to support them – they may fall again and we will be called again – so we take them to A&E.


When we get there, our hearts sink as we see the amount of patients waiting on the corridors with helpless staff wondering where on earth they are going to put everyone? Again – we feel guilty – to the staff who are almost at wit’s end they are so full and to the patients who will now have to wait hours to be seen.


Also a large volume of our work are mental health patients – who usually don’t want, or need to go to hospital. We try to link into referral pathways – crisis teams, care lines and street teams but mental health teams too have been subjected to cutbacks, so we may still end up taking them to A&E. Yet again – we feel guilty.


We used to hear horror stories from colleagues in other services of waiting anywhere up to 12 hours to hand over a patient. They were few and far between – but are now the norm.


While we wait to hand over our patients and transfer them off our stretchers – our radios constantly screech with the control room asking if anyone is available to clear to attend a ‘Red’ call. We know at least one person is in dire need of an ambulance and we can’t go – because the hospital that is full to bursting can’t take our patient from us….and we feel guilty – again.



The guilt and frustration are exhausting. I used to go home at the end of my shift – feeling like I had helped every patient. I now go home and worry that at least half of them may come to harm…or worse – because funding cuts mean I haven’t got them the help they need.


So, then winter comes along. What happens when services are already overrun and hospitals at saturation point – when activity increases even more? We try to do more with less – we work ourselves to breaking point to look after patients that are genuinely poorly.


We feel guilty and frustrated and we break…we burnout and then we feel guilty that we aren’t at work as we’ve had to go sick. I’ve just gone through that myself. Every time I heard a siren, I got upset – because I wasn’t there helping my colleagues and helping patients – but yet I couldn’t be at work? If I’m not on my game – people die.


We have just lived through seven years of pay restraint. I live alone and I’m struggling financially. I had to go back to work – because if I’m not working at least one day’s overtime a week – I can’t manage. We don’t expect a fortune – just a decent living wage.


It’s no good this government telling us they value us at tragic times when atrocities occur but then we still won’t give you a decent pay rise. I’m afraid hypocrisy doesn’t pay my mortgage!


This year – our beloved NHS has its 70th birthday. It is as cherished and successful as it always has been – but this government are trying to break it and sell it off to the highest bidder.


Only a Labour Government can save our precious NHS and I for one – am willing to fight to preserve it!


This is an extended version of the speech Debbie Wilkinson made to the NHS In Crisis rally –January 25.


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