It’s all in the faces
The blood crusted around the nostrils and brow of the kid artificially breathing on life support. The pale countenance of a wife who has made the dazed, horrified journey of dread; from the formal phone call of a police officer to the clinical, fluoro-lit emergency ward where her husband lies, attached to tubes and machines.
The drained but sharp gaze of the trauma doctor, watching a road crash victim being wheeled off to Intensive Care and surgery, even as two paramedics round the corner with yet another bed on wheels; another patient, another mess of blood and trauma and pain.
There is a portal to this other world, and it is only a split second away from us every time we get in our car or van, SUV or truck. Every time we climb onto a motorbike or hop on a bicycle. It’s not a portal you ever want to pass through, yet thousands of Victorians will do so every year, and may never be the same.
All you need to do is lose concentration while driving, or go too fast, desperate not to be a minute late. Or maybe you make that decision to run a yellow light, knowing in your heart that it’s more red than yellow. Perhaps you try to weave fast between lanes, or you glance at the screen of your phone – it’s just one text after all. Or you kid yourself that the fact you had a light beer to finish means you’re not over the limit. Or you make any of the other misjudgments that take a fraction of a moment to physically destroy you. Your life just changed forever. To be clear, this is not a story about death. It is a story of survival, told by road trauma patients in the hope that others won’t suffer or die.
RoyalAuto spent the first half of 2016 flying with Ambulance Victoria to road crashes across Melbourne and its surrounds. We flew to motorbike crashes, head-on collisions, vans wrapped around poles. We watched road trauma victims, almost always men, being cut out of their vehicles, or having cycling leathers sliced from swollen, shattered limbs. We flew to the Royal Melbourne Hospital or the Alfred – Melbourne’s two adult trauma centres – and followed along as doctors and nurses battled to save lives, repair bodies, check for brain damage and stop bleeding. We watched distraught relatives arrive numbly in Emergency, trying to be brave and composed, listening to the doctors’ calm explanations, even as their minds reeled, trying to catch up with the new reality of what had only that morning been their husband or daughter or boyfriend, heading off for work as usual.
We watched the victims enduring CAT scans and invasive surgery and months of recovery. We watched them move through Emergency to intensive care units, to wards, to rehabilitation centres. Groggy with pain-killers, bowels blocked due to side effects, endlessly interrupted for blood tests or to fill in hospital menus, or for who knows what. Frustrated at having to remain horizontal, bored stupid, grateful to be alive. We watched it all.
And it was not pretty. Teenage motorcyclist Trent McGaffin’s muted groans of agony, his left leg a shattered mess and his right lung collapsed by shards of ribs, among a host of other injuries. Footy coach Greg Kelly’s leg hanging below the knee, where it had been jammed between the engine of his van and a pole. Father of three Carl Lewis trying to be wise-cracking brave through the pain of a crumpled pelvis, cuts to the bone and leg fractures, as well as deep lacerations to his eye. Worst of all, 29-year-old Cameron Caldwell in an induced coma, his father Alec affable, unflappable and brave as he wondered if his son would ever wake.
All arriving in emergency trauma bays, having been ferried by the MICA flight paramedics from Ambulance Victoria. The pilots are often ex-military or police, and perform astonishing feats of flying and paramedics deliver urgent medical attention on the sides of roads or in fields or wherever they can land, all while dogs bark, citizens gawk, and patients hang between life and death. They work with fire officers and police, CFA and regular ambulances – the entire gaggle of emergency services for whom a crumpled body in a crumpled wreck is a depressingly common day’s work.