“We ran into the fire to get everyone out” Meet Abbie Collins, London’s Deaf Paramedic

Posted on August 1, 2013

Being a Paramedic is not for the faint hearted. Anything can and will happen.

From being called to someone’s home to resuscitate a heart attack victim, to being ready to treat huge numbers of casualties in terrorist incidents, paramedics sign up for the job in the knowledge that they will, at some point, bear witness to true horror.

They also know that their actions will often mean the difference between life and death.

Last year, The London Ambulance Service attended 390,000 patients with life threatening conditions. This year, if you live around Shoreditch in East London, you may find its 21-year-old Abbie Collins saving your life. And as far as she knows, she is the only deaf paramedic in London.

How did Abbie go from being a Lincolnshire student, who by her own admission struggled in college due to her deafness, to speeding around the mean streets of London looking for lives to save?

“I’ve always wanted to do something caring,” she said.

“But I’ve never really been a great fan of being inside all day so this job was perfect for me, especially as I’m busy all day, every day.”

“Unfortunately my deafness had a massive impact on my A-levels and I had to take another year to re-do all the ones that I failed. Mainly because I couldn’t hear what the teacher was saying, I just zoned out and didn’t even try to pay attention.”

“Once this started, even when I wanted to know what was going on because I hadn’t picked up any of the previous lessons, it was pointless.”

“Because I hadn’t got good enough grades, universities wouldn’t accept me so instead, I went a more direct route into the job which luckily is much better for me as it is more practical and less theory based.”

abbie collins2

Abbie Collins

Once accepted on the Paramedic training course, the pain of struggling to hear teachers quickly ebbed away as Abbie got to grips with the more practical side of learning to save lives.

“The training was amazing! So much better than A-levels because it’s pretty much all practical learning and assessments. It was something I was really interested in as well so I made sure I put the effort and attention into it.”

“I learned CPR (Cardiopulmonary resuscitation), airway management. I also learned how to do and interpret basic observations like taking a manual blood pressure, pulse, respiration rate and how to check someone’s blood glucose.

“You learn about ECG placement and how to read the print out of an ECG and to recognise the patient’s symptoms and try and link them to different illness’ or diseases. Maternity and everything that goes with that is covered as well as major incidents and how to deal with burns and bleeds. Pretty much everything. I could keep going on and on.”

“You also have assessments on how to carry people down the stairs on our carry chair and an advanced driving course so we can drive on blue lights.”

Driving at high speed with blue lights flashing must be something many would love to try, but only the few get to do. But there are other aspects of the job that aren’t so enviable.

“Yes, it’s an incredible job, but you can have your bad run of shifts. Especially being a double female crew, we get attacked and abused quite regularly, but that’s mainly because of the area that we cover.”

abbie collins team

Abbie and her team on a major incident training exercise

“I was concerned about not being able to do the job because of my hearing but because I’m with a regular crewmate we have different signals for different things. It’s nothing to do with sign language, just our own silly made up stuff, and that helps when we’re in noisy places.”

“If you tap their shoulder twice, it means we need to go now. Hand on hips means go get the chair and making an ‘o’ shape with the hand means get the oxygen. A less politically correct one is rubbing your nose. That means ‘this job [call out] is a load of rubbish.’”

So it seems BSL has been replaced with PMSL (Paramedic Sign Language). How about using the radio?

“I’m alright with the main radio in the ambo but the hand-held I struggle with sometimes. Control are normally understanding and find it quite amusing when I hear things completely wrong.”

“The only special equipment I have is a stethoscope but that’s it. It’s just got a volume control on it which is really helpful in nosy places.”

Abbie is still an apprentice and hopes to qualify soon. Following that, her dream is to join the Helicopter Emergency Service (HEMS) but disappointingly, she has been told that her deafness would make that impossible.

Already in her short career, Abbie has seen her fair share of danger and demonstrated her bravery. Only last week, she put her own safety aside to save others.

“We had a fire job last Sunday night and we ran into the fire to get everyone out.” She explained.

“We were close to getting a disciplinary for that but luckily we didn’t because we saved her life. The patient had 30% full thickness burns and we had HEMS come and help us. They had to anaesthetise her at the scene and I found out yesterday that she’s been sent to a specialist burns unit and should make a reasonably good recovery.”

Abbie’s bravery in entering a burning building and her ability to manage her deafness while working in such a challenging role will be an inspiration to young deaf people thinking about their own careers. For them, Abbie’s advice is simple.

“It’s amazing how people will accommodate you and your hearing loss.” She says. “If there is something you really want to do, keep trying to do it.”

By Andy Palmer, The Limping Chicken’s Editor-at-Large.

Andy volunteers for the Peterborough and District Deaf Children’s Society on their website, deaf football coaching and other events as well as working for Action on Hearing Loss. Any views expressed here are his own. Follow him on twitter @LC_AndyP.

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