Medic tries to make sense of an ambulance collision

Though it might seem odd John Malcolm is glad an out-of-control driver hit the ambulance and not another vehicle


Though we regularly report on ambulance crashes they happen so frequently we only report a fraction of the incidents that occur. When I read the news report of a Maine ambulance collision in September, I immediately recognized the name of the paramedic, John Malcolm, who contributed an article in early 2015. In this article Malcolm writes about the collision and its impact on him and his partner.

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By John Malcolm

I was working a normal day shift. My partner and I had been sent out of town on a long-distance transport and we were on our way back. As we all know, conversations in ambulances are fairly entertaining, so he and I were laughing and having a great time. We stopped on the way home for some coffee and had just gotten back on the highway when, out of nowhere, a small red car came flying alongside us and hit the front-driver side of the ambulance.

The car bumped our ambulance into the breakdown lane and then skidded sideways in front of us. The car had to have been going 80-90 mph when it hit the ambulance. We watched it careen off the road, down a ravine, go airborne, land, roll three times before striking a tree, spinning around and then finally rolling onto its roof.

We jumped out of the ambulance and went to work, just like any other call. OK, perhaps with just a little more adrenaline, but otherwise no different. We knew we couldn’t transport the driver in our ambulance, because it was just involved in the accident. We called the local fire/rescue department and also called for a medical helicopter, but the helicopter was unable to reach us.

Once the patient had been transported to the local trauma center, my partner and I waited with our ambulance until a tow truck could get to us, which ended up taking about two hours. We sat on the road side for a while in silence, the events of the previous hour settling in. 

I had quit smoking a month prior, but had picked up a pack of cigarettes that morning. So there we sat, mostly in silence, chain smoking on the side of the highway.

At one point my partner, who is an EMT, looked at me and asked how he had done. When I told him he did amazingly well (which he really did), he informed me that that was his first trauma call. Ever. I never would have guessed. He never let on when we were taking care of the patient and he handled himself like this was a normal day at the office. Of all the partners I’ve worked with, I would pick him to work a trauma with me any day.

Initially, we were drained. We sat, we smoked, we laughed some, we got a little teary at times, we laughed some more. Our supervisor, who had driven the company's fly car an hour to meet us, showed up just about the same time as the tow truck.

Seeing the supervisor somehow made it more real. We decided with the tow truck operator and our supervisor that the ambulance really wasn’t damaged and we would be able to drive home. We got in the truck, but barely made it to the next exit.

I’m not sure if there was really anything wrong with the truck or if we just didn’t want to spend any more time driving that ambulance.

Initially the media reported that the patient died, which, after the amount of work we did, didn’t sit well. We both got angry and upset. In fact, the driver survived the accident without any long term issues, in spite of the fact that her injuries were very severe.

We got back to the station and were given the next day off. I went home and didn’t sleep that night. I tried, but every time I closed my eyes I saw that little red car flipping in front of me. I didn’t sleep until the next night. I think the only reason I didn’t have nightmares was because of how exhausted I was.

The news released my name as the driver of the ambulance, which in turn caused an onslaught of texts, phone calls and social media messages. To all who messaged me, thank you!

However, at the time, I wanted to yell at them all to leave me the hell alone. One of the first calls I got was from someone I rarely talk to, so I answered the phone. At first, they seemed genuinely interested in how I was doing; though that turned out to be a thinly veiled attempt to get the details about the patient's condition. I didn’t handle that as well as I would have hoped. There was some yelling.

The next few times I went on calls at work were difficult. I wasn’t unable to do my job nor scared out of my mind, but there was a constant feeling of unease while the ambulance was moving. Thankfully that only lasted a few shifts. It still affects me from time to time, at completely random moments.

People assume that the trauma of the patient is what bothered me the most, but that is really not the case at all. I can handle trauma patients. We all can. What bothered me was that I watched the accident happen. How many EMS providers can say that they witnessed, and were involved in, an accident that they then responded to?

The image of a small, red flipping car is imprinted in my mind. If I had responded to that like a normal MVA, I would have forgotten about it by now and would most certainly not be writing this article.

We are used to being put into extraordinary situations. We deal with that on a daily basis, but those events are not our emergencies; we were not involved. Switching that to being our emergency and then having to help the patient as well is beyond extraordinary. It became our own traumatic experience.

This might seem odd, but I am happy that she hit us and our ambulance. If she had hit another vehicle, the damage, and loss of life could have been far greater. She was the only injured person. If she had hit another small car, thrown them off the road as well, and then had to wait 25 minutes for the area responders to arrive, the outcome would have been entirely different.

Being in a collision may be rough mentally, but it's made better by the fact that of all the vehicles on the road she could have hit, she hit an ambulance stocked with all the medical equipment she needed. 

I don’t have a conclusion here. This happened two months ago. I’m still dealing with this event in some ways, just not sure how it's going to fully manifest itself. 

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