by Benjamin Gilmour
Pier 9, 304pp, $29.99
Reviewed by CAROLINE BAUM
Sydney Morning Herald
I don’t know if Benjamin Gilmour can cook. Even if he can’t he still qualifies as some kind of Renaissance man: he’s a poet, a filmmaker and a paramedic.
Writing with the muscularity of Anthony Bourdain but with gonzo swagger tempered by considerably less ego and overt machismo, Gilmour takes the reader on an unorthodox travelogue of the world’s ambulance services – an experience most of us would prefer to avoid.
The subject is both mundane and extraordinary. All of us have swerved to make way for a speeding white van with sirens blaring but few have given much thought to what happens inside them.
We take the very existence of an ambulance service and a centralised call centre for granted. We are also cavalier and casual in calling the emergency services for the slightest ailment, like the woman Gilmour attended to in Sydney who complained of a burning tongue.
State-run paramedic rescue services are not the norm worldwide and even where they are, crews can face unexpected challenges: inadequate street numbers, low bridges and gondolas present nightmarish problems in Venice, a city populated by elderly people who live upstairs and have to be carried out of homes onto swaying boats, making procedures such as defibrillation particularly hazardous. Often, it is simpler to leave people to die at home.
In Mexico, locals say it is more likely your pizza delivery will arrive before the ambos, because of the proliferation of speed bumps. And as if the real guys don’t have enough to deal with, paparazzi feeding the nation’s insatiable tabloid necrophilia pose as fake ambo crews in their quest for gruesome shots of corpses.
But when it comes to extreme circumstances, Pakistan trumps everywhere else: there is no state-run emergency service to deal with the epidemic of suicide bombings and their dismembered victims. After directing Son of a Lion in the tribal badlands, Gilmour has retained a sincere affection for the country and its people. This secures him frontline access to a fascinatingly grisly and shockingly under-resourced enterprise created by one man, Abdul Sattar Edhi, a remarkable organisation that runs 1600 and is held in high regard by the Taliban and the everyday poor.
Small wonder that Edhi is known as the Mother Teresa of his nation. But he is not his country’s only hero. In Peshawar, Dr Afridi demonstrates an inspired approach to running an emergency ward hours after a major incident that has policy implications for our well-resourced, first-world approach. Gilmour’s prose pulsates with adrenalin throughout the book but nowhere more eloquently than in this memorable chapter.
His professional engagement gives Gilmour’s writing unique and indisputable authenticity. He is sometimes critical of what he sees: extreme revival techniques, dangerous driving, dubious financial practices. Despite seasoned experience he is still surprised by the unexpected ways the body reacts even when life has ended (an over-oxygenated corpse can apparently raise its arm in what looks like a gesture of revival).
There are moments of farcical relief mixed in with the drama, horror and tragedy and Gilmour is honest enough to admit to his own fear and disgust (but the dread he confesses to, anticipating a ritual sauna with his Icelandic colleagues, suggests exaggerated physical insecurity).
Readers can feel doubly grateful: for the emergency services we have and for a heart-pumping, gripping ride that confirms they are in the safe hands of a true professional.