Saturday, September 15, 2007

Siren call

Ambulance driver M.O. Jayan has handled police harassment and customer indifference with equanimity

By Shevlin Sebastian

"I was taking a patient from the Medical Trust hospital to the Alleppey Medical College," says M.O. Jayan, 34, the ambulance driver for Welcare Hospital. "He was an old man, in his eighties, and his forty-year-old son was accompanying him. He was being given oxygen. But, now and then, the tube was falling off. This was unusual. The tube never falls off. So, I had to stop the vehicle four times and adjust the tube."

Jayan finally discovered what was happening when he looked through the rear view mirror. The son was pressing on the tube, to prevent the oxygen from reaching his father. Hence, the pressure built up at the other end and the tube was falling off. So, he asked the man why he was doing this. The man said, "I have been looking after my sick father for nine years. Because the medical expenses were so high, I had to sell my house and move to a rented flat. My brothers and sisters are not bothered at all." Both his wife and he were labourers. He had three daughters, all of a marriageable age.

"Even though I felt sad, I could understand his agony," says Jayan. "His father was draining away the money. Hence, he wished that his father was dead. This happened five years ago and it is an incident that I have never forgotten."

Jayan has been an ambulance driver for 14 years. He is on 24 hour call and says that he gets around two calls a day, and the monthly average works out to about 50. Most of the calls are for patients who have been in accidents or have suffered fractures or dislocations. "When they call us, it is not necessary they will ask to be taken to Welcare," he says. "They might want to go to the Medical Trust or the Ernakulam Medical Centre."

And he can take them there in a very short time because an ambulance driver has certain privileges. If he is carrying a patient, who is in a medical emergency, he can activate the siren, go down a one-way street, cross red lights and go in the opposite lane. But, as is usually the case with freedoms in India, it is frequently abused.

"There are many drivers who activate the siren even when they are not carrying a patient, as they do not want to get stuck in traffic," he says. "As a result, we are losing our credibility." Sometimes, bus drivers can see inside the ambulance and they will refuse to move their vehicles to the side. "When there is a genuine emergency, this attitude can have fatal consequences," he says.

Despite this, Jayan says the public is always willing to co-operate. "Our problem is with the police," he says. Some time ago, he got a call from Amrita Hospital to collect a patient immediately. So he switched on the siren, so that he could travel quickly. At Edapally, the constable noticed the empty ambulance and detained him for one and a half hours, despite his pleas. The Amrita hospital was forced to hire another ambulance.

A constable, who is manning the Judge's Avenue crossing, but does not want to be identified, says, "Most of the time, ambulance drivers misuse the siren. Actually, you can use the siren only in an emergency. You cannot use it when you are transporting a dead body. Another problem is that drivers use mobile phones while driving. This is against the law."

Jayan says that people call him on the mobile only when there is an emergency. "How can I avoid taking the call?" he says. "It could be a matter of life and death."

"Rules are rules," says the constable. "It cannot be changed for ambulance drivers."

Jayan earns about Rs 4000 a month and about Rs 3000 extra from overtime work, as he is the only driver in Welcare. "For Jayan, the hospital is providing free food and accommodation," says M.T. Cherian, the administrator for Welcare.

During the week, the driver stays in the hospital and goes home on the weekend to Angamaly, where his wife, Sindhu, 28, and his two young sons, Chris Jay Martin and Aine Joseph, stay.

In his long career, what he misses most of all is the tips that he would get from the relatives of patients. "When I started out, there was no need for a salary," he says. "I could have survived on the tips alone. But now, people's attitude has changed. Since there are so many private ambulances, they feel we are making good profits and hence there is no need to give a tip."

Another aspect which surprises him is the way people refuse to help when he brings a stretcher to collect a patient. "They feel that since they are paying us, it is our duty," he says. "Even if it is their own father or mother, they don't want to lend a helping hand. Things have changed. Earlier, people had a heart. Now, it is all business-like."

But Jayan carries on, ferrying people to and from hospitals. Some live, some die, and the cycle of life goes on.

Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express)

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