When Amy Willis called emergency services, she was under the impression they were there to help. But her experience with them has since made her second guess that.
Willis, a writer for metro UK, shared her experience online. To say it's alarming would be an understatement.
She describes how she had eaten curry the day before, so when her stomach started aching, it only made sense that her Indian indulgence was the cause.
"My stomach felt like a hard ball ripping through my insides," she writes. "My entire body convulsed and I found myself writhing around in the fetal position, shaking in pain."
Nope, definitely not the curry. Even Willis' dog Scout knew something was wrong.
"I knew it was appendicitis as soon as the pain got really bad. Six months earlier mum’s appendix burst inside her like an overstretched balloon following three days of misdiagnosis."
Willis called a friend to see if she could get a ride to the hospital, but after going to voicemail three times, Amy knew it was up to her to call 999 (the UK equivalent to 911.)
"Calling 999 for yourself just feels wrong," she says. "No matter how much pain you are in, you feel like you shouldn’t. It feels over the top. Dramatic. Like yelling I’M A PRIORITY in a room full of people needing medical help. It still makes me cringe thinking about it now. But I reasoned with myself, knowing that it was likely to be appendicitis – a medical emergency – and the pain really wasn’t going away. It was a difficult decision to make but I knew it was my only option."
Amy dialed the three digits through excruciating pain, remembering very little because it was all a blur. What she does remember, though, is the operator on the other end of the line saying "NO" when she asked for an ambulance, then hanging up.
"It was a decision based on a phone call lasting a few seconds. To this day I have no idea why. I look back now and wonder if it was because I physically made the call myself. She didn’t ask whether I could get to hospital another way and the implication was that I didn’t need to go. Instead, she told me to call 111 (emergency health care services) and rang off."
Luckily for Amy, her friend Kate (whom she had called previously) called back and immediately told her to call 111. Even that conversations was very casual on the part of the operator.
"I spent what felt like an eternity answering tedious questions between screams, bursts of uncontrollable vomiting and me begging the 111 call operator to send help. It was humiliating. The call ended about 10 minutes later with the operator coming to the conclusion that I needed an ambulance."
The ambulance was called at 7pm. By 8pm, it still hadn't arrived. Amy texted Kate and asked her to send their friend Tom to drive her.
"At 8.30pm I collapsed at the entrance of A&E at the Princess Royal Hospital, in Orpington. Liquid morphine came next, a wonderful coldness that finally took the pain. 24 hours after that I was being prepped for surgery and my appendix extracted. There was a lot of pus and liquid but the organ was intact. It took five days to recover due to complications but the operation was a success – and the doctors and nurses in the hospital were fantastic."
"My concern is how the 999 call operator made me feel like my case wasn’t an emergency. It never struck me that the emergency services could refuse to send help like that and the shock of it almost made me give up hope. That feeling is not a nice one. I was lucky that I was confident enough about my condition to know I needed urgent medical care – with the pain likely to be appendicitis like my mother and grandmother. I was also lucky in that I had friends nearby who were able to come to my aid.
But others who come into difficulty while at home alone, the vulnerable elderly for instance, might not be so fortunate. And if one of those callers with a life threatening condition is refused help based on a snap assessment like mine, the consequences could be far worse. People don’t have to be unconscious to need emergency care."
A spokesperson for London Ambulance Service said the following regarding the incident:
"We are very sorry for any discomfort and distress experienced. When the patient called us with abdominal pain, she was conscious, breathing and alert and not requiring an immediate ambulance response. We referred her to NHS 111 for an enhanced clinical assessment who agreed that an immediate emergency response was not required, but she did need to be taken to hospital.
We were extremely busy when she called, taking over 320 emergency calls an hour. As always, we prioritize all of our patients so that those in life-threatening conditions, such as cardiac arrest, or those with severe blood loss or burns, or who are choking, get the quickest response."
Overall, Amy Willis was very lucky to survive her experience. One can only imagine what would have happened if she did not have friends to help her.