In Which I Talk With A Stranger On The Motorway

The first thought that crossed my mind when I saw a plume of smoke go up on the inside lane of the M6 was ‘someone’s having a bonfire’. Inane, I know, and it was only a split-second later that my brain put together the remainder of the image – a car spinning into the wall, debris scattering across the road, and the wall of brake lights that went up ahead of me. The second thought was ‘bugger, I’m a doctor’ and the third one came out of my mouth as ‘I think we’d better stop.’ The car in question was side on in the hard shoulder – the bonnet crumple zones had lived up to their name and there was glass and plastic all over the road. I had images of horrendous injuries, blood everywhere, and of us (there were three of us in the car) stabilising spines and airways while waiting for the ambulance to arrive. Almost as an afterthought there came an adrenaline kick so hard it slowed the world down for a moment and a somewhat-unexpected feeling that I wouldn’t recall until later.

Luckily none of that imagery came to pass and as I got out of my car, the driver got out of what was left of his – a young man, late twenties, shaking like a leaf as we got him away from his smoking vehicle – no other occupants, engine not running – and asked him if he was hurt. There was blood on his knees from where he had hit the steering wheel, he had knocked his arm a little, but he was otherwise (somewhat miraculously) unharmed. I’ll confess that I surreptitiously assessed his cervical spine before the paramedics arrived (you can take the doctor away from the hospital…) but otherwise the only thing I did was offer him some water and sit with him, talk to him while the emergency services were called – boring questions about where he was coming from, what he’d been doing up there, was there any pain in his neck, where he was going to, any pins and needles or numbness anywhere, and what he did for a living (he enjoyed hill-walking, he’d been up in north Wales, he had no neck pain and he worked in Birmingham for the council).

The signs over the motorway changed to close the lane, the traffic officer and then the ambulance arrived, and we just sat with him while the paramedics checked him over and the police took everyone’s details. I never mentioned that myself and one other person in the car were doctors, and nobody asked. What was pretty apparent was that he didn’t need immediate medical treatment – he needed a calm voice and a hand on his shoulder, and providing that was so much more important than a brusque run-through of ABC and a neurological examination. Before I left I went back and shook his hand, said goodbye, and left him with the paramedic looking after him.

It was still a bit of a drive home, and I couldn’t help thinking about the whole thing, playing it through, and thinking that yes – today I made a difference, and it wasn’t because I was a doctor or because I could use complicated bits of kit but just because I was a person who stopped to chat for a few minutes with someone who was scared and upset. That is a pretty good feeling.

It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge that this could have been a lot worse. The man in the car was exceptionally lucky, and the images that sprang to mind when I first saw the accident could very easily have been the truth. What I realised later on is that despite that, what I felt when I was pulling my car over and stopping was confidence.

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