The festive season is one of the busiest periods for paramedics as road accidents, drownings and other medical emergencies demand attention. These men and women leave home every day not knowing what they will encounter or if they will survive. Karinda Jagmohan spent a few hours with a paramedic crew...

Barefoot, a teenager in a football shirt runs across a road to the ambulance. He screams over the siren: “Follow me!”

But there’s barely any place to park in the village hub close to where a man has collapsed, possibly from a heart attack.

Shaylee Bauer and Pat Pillay, pictured, heave machines, medical kits and an oxygen tank over their shoulders. They run up the driveway to a block of flats, following the boy.

Bauer and Pillay have begun their four-day shift at the KwaZulu-Natal Emergency Medical Service (KZN EMS) that will end on New Year’s Eve.

Bauer, 24, is an advanced life support paramedic, and Pillay, 53, is an intermediary life support paramedic, working in the service for 30 years.

On the night of January 31, they will be among those responding to Code Red cases - where patients are in urgent need of medical assistance.

It’s on this last night of the year when Code Reds are expected to spike.

Assault cases are most common, as the alcohol sinks in and emotions heighten. But today, their Code Red is a heart attack.

“Just to warn you, my father is very angry, he didn’t want us to call you,” the boy warns the crowd squeezed into a lift.

Bauer smiles reassuringly at him.

She started working with KZN EMS in February, and has settled down just as concerns of paramedics’ safety have reached boiling point.

The SA Emergency Personnel Union has called on its 7000 members to arm themselves with guns after a spate of attacks on members.

But the national director at EMS and disaster management at the Health Department, Raveen Naidoo, condemned this call. He said all health establishments were gun-free zones and EMS was no exception.

The department has been taking steps to address the issue.

Inside the flat, a man is slumped on the floor between a bed and doorway.

Before Bauer can greet him he snaps: “Who told you to f****** come here? I don’t want you here.”

The team stays calm and friendly.

“Hello sir, it’s okay, we just wanted to check your blood pressure, and then we’ll be on our way, okay?” Bauer tells him, coaxing him to trust her.

After several minutes, he lets the paramedics help him on to the bed to use the ECG (electrocardiogram) machine to monitor his heart.

They conclude he must immediately see a doctor, but he refuses.

He signs a form stating he declined medical assistance and shoos them out the flat.

But not before lambasting them.

“You arrived after the golden hour, I could have died!”

Bauer, Pillay and KZN EMS spokesperson Robert Mckenzie load up the vehicle and leave.

“This happens often. He doesn’t know we raced here from the Phoenix base to get to him as fast as we could,” Mckenzie says.

The team had rushed through red traffic lights to get to the patient.

On the way back, Mckenzie points to a handful of cars on North Coast Road.

“It’s a bit quiet now because of the holidays, but on a normal weekday we’d never be able to get through here,” he says.

Patients like the one they have just attended to are not unusual.

Hours earlier, in another part of the city, Bauer had remarked: “Look at this baby, he’s fighting the world for his life, and you have people out there who don’t even want to live.”

She had been transferring a newborn boy from a neonatal Intensive Care Unit in Durban to a Phoenix hospital.

The transfer was another Code Red, as the newborn was being kept alive by a machine pumping air into his lungs.

“Our lives are not like those in the Hollywood movies, we’re not rock stars,” Mckenzie said.

There is no celebration or extra reward.

This was Bauer’s case, and she must move on to the next one.

While paramedics’ safety has come under the spotlight in recent weeks, the topic of their mental health has also surfaced.

“People so easily ask us ‘What’s the worst thing we’ve seen?’ and we may not answer, because the memories are traumatic,” Mckenzie said.

Between cases, the crew rests in a boardroom of sorts where they swallow their lunch and check their phones.

“We are still human, and people do need to understand that, and hopefully understand how we operate as well,” said Mckenzie.

Sunday Tribune