Wearing green and driving fast are things that come naturally to me. When coronavirus began to hit London, my wife began working seven-day weeks between two London hospitals. I wanted to help too, so joined St John Ambulance.
The organisation, staffed by 18,000 highly-trained volunteers within England, has so far put in 100,000 hours at the pandemic’s frontline, from the twelve ambulances it runs on a typical day in London, to the most stretched intensive care units (ICUs) from the Charing Cross to Lewisham and Royal Brompton hospitals (the last of which offers the best food). One couple in East London has spent eight weeks crewing an ambulance together.
I had been in the process of joining the Army reserves, but the virus halted my training, so I could not help much there. I wrote to the police special constabulary and the Royal Navy (who, after all, have much better uniforms, and warships too). Everyone was lovely, but no one was quite able to put me directly to work until one Thursday evening I wrote to St John Ambulance.
Their efficiency amazed me: my application form was processed that night, and at the weekend I was in Croydon for socially distanced assessment, interviews, and background checks. A volunteer from Cavan (like my wife, I am Irish) took my ear temperature at the door, and soon I found myself marvelling across a room with a New Zealand woman named Pippa that we were outside our houses, talking in person.
My uniform quickly arrived by post – a fleece jumper, a waterproof, a short-sleeved shirt which subtly encourages you to do press-ups – along with my training dates and opportunities to chip in beforehand, stocking up warehouses and ambulances between shifts. Two weekends’ socially-distanced training earns you an operational first aider qualification; another weekend on a coronavirus module fits you out to help in hospitals. After a year of helping with volunteer shifts – all of which now aim at the pandemic effort – you can do an advanced first aider qualification and apply to begin paramedic training.
I and other St John Ambulance’s volunteers have helped in the Nightingale Hospital’s north ward and at stretched hospitals, taking observations and talking to patients being stepped down from ICUs. The director of operations in Wales, James Shaughnessy, calls coronavirus the volunteer organisation’s “largest ever operation”.
It’s a pool of trained, reliable volunteers the NHS leans on often. The NHS Blood and Transplant division needed extra help at the end of May with blood donor sessions, so a handful of us chipped in at sites in Chislehurst and Shirley. There are a herd of large Nissan mobile treatment centres, many bought by the masonic Mark Benevolent Fund, which you go to Brighton to learn to drive (just as everyone else was being told not to pop to Brighton for the day). These have supported Guy’s Cancer and Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Woolwich, allowing patients on chemotherapy to avoid going to hospital and possibly being exposed to the virus. BP has donated free fuel for all of the vehicles: 10 million litres to UK emergency services through the first week of June.
My local unit is Crystal Palace. For me, it feels very much like a family: there are 20 people, a WhatsApp group and terrible jokes. Writing to apologise for being new and asking a particularly inane question, I was told “you’re already part of the furniture”.
Fortnightly on Wednesdays, in place of a physical unit evening, we now meet by way of Microsoft Teams. These have the feel of my wife’s Grand Rounds: last week, a paediatric nurse from Great Ormond Street gave a two-hour presentation on patient care for young children. Two weeks before, volunteers in my unit took turns describing patients they’d treated recently who were either difficult to diagnose, or offered very classical examples of an ailment, or raised other clinical issues worth sharing.
It is a friendly bunch. “We are friends, we are colleagues, we train, sweat, and work together, and the only colours we see are our uniforms,” volunteer Malcolm Galvin said online last weekend. When you join, you discover friends who have been part of the organisation. Most junior doctors I know volunteered with St John Ambulance before or during their courses.
My mother-in-law turns out to have been a volunteer in Strabane, in Northern Ireland, in the 1960s. Two friends listened to me praising the organisation and decided they would join it too. For my part, I was encouraged by a friend who, in his capacity as a priest, officiated at my wedding eight years ago. The Reverend Timothy L’Estrange, it turns out, was for 24 years an active St John Ambulance volunteer, including as a Divisional President in Sussex.
St John’s Day is 24 June. Hayley Kenward, a St John Ambulance member in Brighton, is organising a virtual tea party on Zoom. The feast of the ambulance’s namesake, John the Baptist, is a midsummer feast day, one of four quarter days dividing the year. It delighted generations who marked it across mediaeval Europe with bonfires, sweetbread, and good drink. It is the same today, just with more software.
Pádraig Belton is a journalist and an academic too. Follow him on Twitter.