After the success of its documentary series on life and death in the emergency room, the Knowledge Network wasted no time commissioning a riveting “prequel” consisting of 10 episodes on paramedics working throughout the Lower Mainland.
The series, which streams online and on television April 2, won’t disappoint those craving insight into the jobs and personalities of 911 call takers, dispatchers and the paramedics who race to scenes in their “moving emergency rooms.”
As many already know, ambulance drivers frequently encounter distracted pedestrians looking down at their cellphones as they cross streets, oblivious to speeding ambulances with lights and sirens, not to mention drivers who take far too long to get out of the way. The producers even made a short video calling attention to bad drivers.
It’s just one exasperating part of the job.
“Threading the needle” is the term one ambulance driver uses to describe the precarious weaving (“c’mon kid, I’m not skiing”) to manoeuvre through traffic. A dash cam installed by the film company partner, Lark Productions, captures the driver’s candid banter with her colleague as she aggressively steps on the gas and quips: “It’s fun driving fast with lights and sirens, let’s be honest.”
Those who’ve opined that such health professionals must be adrenalin junkies thriving on chaos will also observe how calm the call takers and paramedics appear as they’re taking information from people in medical crises and rushing to the scene of gruesome accidents to provide care to those in need.
The series reinforces the understanding that the work takes a huge toll, both physically and emotionally. Post-traumatic stress disorder was the focus of a CBC documentary but the physical toll, especially on the musculoskeletal system, is also harsh and a common cause of days off work.
“I’ve been doing this for 25 years. I’m hoping to make it to retirement in about six years if my body holds up. It’s no job for old people,” said one paramedic in an episode titled No Occupation for Old Men.
Ironically, there is no mandatory retirement age for paramedics and many work well into their 60s, according to B.C. Emergency Health Services.
They eat on the go, wolfing down a sandwich or an ice cream with one hand while deftly steering ambulances with the other. They use deadpan sarcasm and droll humour to lighten the mood. And they must have good chemistry and trust with their shift partners.
There are only two deaths shown in 10 episodes of the docuseries. The paramedics on the scene of one cardiac arrest try everything to save the male and even call a hospital doctor to verify there’s nothing they’ve missed.
“Death is part of life, we’re all gonna die one day,” a paramedic says as a body is covered with a flannel sheet. It was one of at least 17 calls he had responded to during the 12-hour shift.
Viewers might find themselves frustrated by not knowing what happens to patients, like the East Vancouver woman who encountered a complication during a midwife-assisted water birth at home or the 46-year-old heart failure patient waiting to go on a heart transplant wait list.
That sentiment is often shared by the paramedics themselves, said Erin Haskett, a Lark Productions series executive producer. Many expressed frustration that they often don’t learn the outcomes of their cases after patients are handed off to hospital teams.
The series took 130 days of filming from December 2017 to June 2018. The 10 episodes are each under an hour but 1,500 hours of filming was done, often by crews embedded in ambulances at all hours of the day and night. Patients were asked for consent to film before they were handed off to the hospital and again after.
While rural paramedics were left out because of logistical challenges, about 40 of those working in Vancouver, North Vancouver, Burnaby Richmond and Surrey are featured. There are about 3,800 paramedics with various levels of credentials and 300 dispatch staff working for B.C. Emergency Health Services across the province.
Linda Lupini, executive vice-president of BCEHS, said the agency was reluctant to participate in the series.
“Initially we didn’t want to do this and we actually spent a few years talking to Knowledge Network about our concerns about logistics, about patient privacy, etc. So we hired a legal analyst and a top privacy expert. They came up with a lengthy list of things to ensure everyone met all the requests.”
There are numerous tricks used by the show’s editors to obscure locations and identities. In some cases street signs are even switched in the editing process and passersby who were on foot are shown on bicycles.
Among the incidents included in the series are a sexual assault call, a baby in respiratory distress, a cyclist hit by a car, a truck-bus crash, a fall at a construction site, an overdose at a SkyTrain station and an unconscious restaurant customer.
“I call our health professionals the first-first responders,” said Lupini. “People who watch this series will see their incredible compassion and patience. They often don’t get the recognition they deserve and I think this is a powerful way to showcase that.”
Viewers may be left wondering why anyone would want a job that takes such a toll on the human spirit. Lupini acknowledges she worried, initially, that the authentic conversations paramedics have about their work might deter people from entering the profession.
“In the series, paramedics talk about why they love their jobs but they also speak honestly about the challenges,” she said.