A Story from the Frontline

I remember one particular drug addict.
Casualty, Dryburn Hospital, Durham.
It was a common enough situation . Overenthusiastic use of heroin.
The priority, mine at least, was to treat and, when it was safe for him to leave the hospital, discharge him.

Of course that’s a fraction of the bigger problem. But sometimes all you can get to grips with in the emergency department is the immediate problem.
Fifteen minutes after I discharged him but before he left the hospital, a staff nurse said to me.
“Julian, that patient in Bay 2 wants to talk to you ”
“Really , the one I just saw and discharged? Why?”
“Don’t know”

I opened the curtain.
He was out of bed standing tall. Normally a good sign.
And looking at me blankly. Normally not.
“Err, yes , how can I help?”
He stared hard at me and tensed his legs which seemed to raise him taller still.
Gritty silence.
I was looking at his face and eyes so I pulled back my gaze.
His right hand held a blade.
And I realised, or suspected, that he was tensing as he considered thrusting it into me.
After all, I hadn’t given him any more drugs, had I?
My personal priority, that of him being medically safe to go, was of minimal interest to him in that moment.

I backed out of the cubicle.
I didn’t know what to do.
“He’s got a knife”.
Nobody looked part particularly alarmed.
I went to the nurses’ station for some cover.
“You should phone the police of something” said one of the nurses.
I recall a distinct lack of urgency.
Had they even heard what I’d said?
I didn’t even know how to get an outside line.

There was some discussion of calling security but the outsourced security officer was some distance away in the large hospital landscape.
And anyway, wasn’t armed.
And anyway, didn’t touch actual people.
I am sure I must have exclaimed some disbelief at this point.
I had seen the same man around and doubted his physical fitness to take on this lean assailant and be my saviour. I also doubted my ability to raise him shoulder high afterwards. What with my back and everything.

Time slowed down a bit.
Somebody call the police.
I feel as though they arrived within about 90 seconds. Can it be true?
They must have been just round the corner, I thought to myself.

A corridor stand-off.
All staff in the nurses’ station.
Ringside seats.
One man standing, knife drawn.
Three policeman advancing in the corridor.
One step forward.
Instructions: “Put it down”
Two steps forward
“Put it down or you are going down.”
Three steps. Louder.
“Put it down now or you are going down”
The man lifted up the knife thrust it into his thigh.
Three times in a second.
By then they were on him.
Restrained, disarmed, bleeding.

I was as impressed recalling that now as I was then.
“Thanks, guys. That was a really quick response!”
“No problem, Doc, we were just around the corner.”

Our opiate-addicted friend was happily disarmed and even more happily for me, cuffed. Because, of course, now he had a whole new set of injuries for me.

I spent the next 20 minutes stitching him up, chatting with him. He wasn’t such a bad guy. And I wasn’t the fastest suturer.
I have wondered since about when weapons are concealed.
Wondered why there were no metal detectors.
Why we’d being taught nothing about how to protect ourselves.
Why there was nobody nearby to guarantee staff security.
Such things require a newsworthy event, don’t they?

I can’t remember if he apologised but I’m sure he will have done.
Early remorse is expected after you’ve invited someone in for a stabbing.

The stitches went well, you’ll be pleased to hear.
Nice linear wounds that aligned pleasingly. I was pretty chuffed with them.
We arranged not to meet again.
Happily, we never did.
But guess what… I still think of him.
And occasionally take one step back.
Grateful for the quick action of the cops.

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