For Marimuthu, who has been an ambulance driver for the past 17 years, driving at breakneck speed through traffic is all in a day’s work. What does upset him though is not being there enough for his daughter. “I missed every single one of my daughter’s parent-teacher meetings. She kept asking me to be there but if there is an emergency at the time, there is nothing I can do,” says Marimuthu, who drives an ambulance for Kauvery Hospital. “She is 18 now. There are no more meetings to attend. I missed all of them.”
For people like Marimuthu, the city’s unsung heroes, life is unpredictable, tricky, and demanding.
Beginning his career as a driver in a car showroom, 29-year-old Prakash quit to drive ambulances as he felt saving lives was a noble deed. “People think that ambulance drivers just need to be able to drive fast. But there is more to it. Driving an ambulance is all about keeping tabs on traffic, finding out where the diversions are, on which roads the traffic has increased, or where metro rail work is going on or diversions set up. Estimating the time of arrival is a task,” he says.
“People are sometimes indifferent to an ambulance siren and refuse to move out of the way. This adds to our stress on the road, especially when we understand how serious the condition of the person inside is,” says Prakash, who drives for Prashanth Hospital.
He adds that often, owing to the traffic, they are forced to take one-ways and jump signals. “Even though they can see us coming from the opposite direction, vehicles don’t even try changing lanes or give way,” says Prakash. “To add to it, motorists who stop for tea at petty shops park their vehicles at turnings causing traffic blocks.”
You can sense the frustration in Prakash’s voice as he recounts a recent incident when he had to inch through traffic trying to reach T Nagar from Velachery. “It took me an hour to reach. There’s a skywalk in West Mambalam for pedestrians at this busy junction. Yet, people often disregard it entirely, ambling across the road at their own pace.
It’s almost as if they cannot see the ambulance urgently waiting for them to cross.” In instances where the patient is critical, the ambulance driver radios police for assistance. A small team of police is deployed to immediately clear traffic, especially at junctions for the ambulance to pass.
Nandakumar K, an ambulance driver with Apollo Hospitals, says other than the traffic, another challenge that they face is locating their destination quickly. “Sometimes patients or caregivers send us the wrong address or location pin and we lose a lot of time.
Ambulance drivers, says Nandakumar, are trained to respond to a call within seconds. “We leave the station within two minutes of responding to the call and reach a location in the range of 10km within 15 minutes. We are constantly working on ways to cut the downtime further.”
The challenges don’t stop once they reach the location. “We often don’t get parking because people park their vehicles at random on the road, so we sometimes end up having to park a little away. In cases of a fall or physical trauma, the drivers are trained to position the ambulance and help handle the patient in a way that does not cause additional pain or discomfort. The patients are usually secured to a scoop board, a device used to carry people, to take them to the van.”
Always being on call, Marimuthu says ambulance drivers struggle to manage time with breaks. “I always eat lunch and dinner on the go. I hardly get to eat home-cooked food because emergencies are unannounced. Often, just as I am about to wrap up for the day, I will receive a call about a rescue and would have to respond.
Sometimes I think about letting someone else respond but my conscience won’t let me,” he says. “Almost on reflex, I am out the door, keys in hand, siren on, rushing through traffic to help save a life.”