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In London, a drunk tent for boozing bankers

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The recession must be taking it's toll - from a Canadian paper, love the comments:


In London, a drunk tent for boozing bankersA sure sign of Christmas at London's busiest commuter station is a tarp for treating partiers

Dec 16, 2008 04:32 AM Comments on this story icoComment.gif (28) Caroline Mallan

Special to the Star

London–In some cities, the sure sign that the Christmas season is in full swing comes when decorative lights are switched on.

In others, it's the echo of familiar, festive tunes or the Santa-themed displays in department store windows.

In London, we know it's really Christmas when the ambulance service erects the drunk tent at the rear of a platform in one of the British capital's busiest commuter train stations.

A field hospital Torontonians would associate with natural disasters or war zones is rolled out every Christmas to deal with fallout from an office party season that seemingly has no limits – especially when it comes to the booze on offer.

We're not talking your run-of-the-mill tipsy at Liverpool Street Station, in the heart of the city's financial district.

We are talking fall-down, passed out, often bleeding, vomiting, cannot-remember-their-own-names drunk.

This year, add a credit crunch to the drowning of many bankers' sorrows in a culture that already favours heavy drinking, and you have what the London Ambulance Service's Nick Lesslar sees as the perfect storm.

"Oh, we're in for a record tonight, I think," Lesslar says with a knowing smile. It's Friday night and, as the 11 p.m. closing time for most pubs approaches, his tent is about to fill with the stumbling wounded.

The idea behind the tent, in its third year, is inspired.

By treating people near to where they've got themselves into "a spot of bother" – as one patient with a gash across his head quaintly termed it – the ambulance crews divert patients from overtaxed emergency departments at nearby hospitals.

The ambulance service also runs a "booze bus" that trolls central London, picking up revellers who have passed out in the streets or in clubs and bars, and taking them to hospital in groups.

Last year, the tent treated more than 100 people over the nine nights it operated (Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights for the three weeks before Christmas), a number that Lesslar says will be easily surpassed this year if the first few nights are any indication.

"We basically bring them here, try to sober them up, get some IV fluids into them and go through their mobile phones looking for a number to call of someone who can come and get them."

While good-humoured and, like his entire crew, infinitely patient, Lesslar does have strong thoughts on the drinking culture that grips London – and especially the financial heart called the City, this time of year.

"What's the most annoying is that you've got very high-powered, intelligent, highly paid people doing this to themselves. And being drunk to oblivion is not, to my mind, a good enough reason to be hospitalized, not when there are real sick people out there."

A few hours spent alongside his crew of ambulance personnel and St. John Ambulance volunteers serves up an eyeful of the misery they put up with.

While at times amusing, very little of it is pretty.

"Simon," in his early 40s, passed out on the platform as he headed for a train. He had also vomited on himself.

He among the lucky few, having been with a colleague who could tell paramedics that Simon had been off sick recently after bouts of dizziness.

His friend also called Simon's wife to keep her informed.

This elevated the patient from just being drunk to possibly having other medical issues, and made it easier to decide to forward him on to hospital.

"John" came in to the medic tent accompanied by his mother. In his early 20s, he had shown up at his mother's after-work bar get-together with her friends, and began buying rounds.

"He was showing off, really," his now very-sober mother confessed, adding that she warned him to slow down after two of what turned out to be "five, maybe six" double vodkas he had quickly downed.

As she speaks, John is lying face-down in a Styrofoam vomit bowl with an IV stuck in his arm. He has urinated in his badly torn pants and is too drunk to do anything more than moan.

He and his mother will miss their last train home to the suburbs and, because he cannot stand after several hours of trying, no taxi will take someone looking quite so sick. John, too, will be shipped to hospital for the night, despite the best efforts of Lesslar's team.

In diverting others from the ER, the team comes up with imaginative ways to get their patients awake, sitting, then walking, then heading home.

"Alan" might just win the most congenial patient of the season award.

"I'm so, so terribly sorry for all this bother," he says with impeccable manners as the nurse mops the blood off his face and glues the gash on his forehead closed.

"I feel truly dreadful taking up your valuable time like this," he adds. Alan then vows – with a beaming smile – to never, ever again attempt to give a colleague a piggyback ride at the Christmas party "without using my hands."

After being patched up and then monitored for more than an hour, during which time he has introduced himself and told his shameful tale to a stream of fellow wounded souls, Alan is cleared to go home.

He hands Lesslar a £10 note ($16) and insists that he buy a box of chocolates for the crew as a small thank you.

"Grant" is found passed out on the platform by police with a sticker on his jacket that says "Wake me at Melwyn North," a town about 50 kilometres from London. He didn't quite make it.

When the radio call comes from the British Transport Police, Lesslar's team gets a wheelchair ready to bring him in.

The tent erupts in laughter after Lesslar asks the crew over the radio if their patient is instead walking over to the tent.

"More of a crawl, really," comes the instant reply.

"Grant," 24, is now waiting for his mother to come and get him after ambulance staff used his mobile phone to call and tell her what has happened.

"My mother is going to go mental," Grant tells me while he waits. He then has the brilliant idea to call her off, phoning to say it was all a big joke and he is fine and staying at a friend's in London for the night.

Luckily, his clumsy attempt to talk his way out of trouble with mum is interrupted by emergency medical technician Tony Olma, who takes the phone and reassures Grant's mother that she still needs to come and collect her son.

Perhaps the most vulnerable patient of the night is "Rachel," a young woman dressed to the nines for a big night out.

She, too is lucky that she is with a friend who is somewhat sober.

Rachel, about 25, has fallen down on the platform and likely broken her nose, but she is aggressive and teary, and refusing treatment.

Lesslar says women are both his most frequent patients and the most consistently vulnerable.

"It's a physical reality: Women have higher body fat and the alcohol cannot metabolize as quickly," he says. "They get drunker faster and often they aren't big drinkers, so they aren't used to that much alcohol."

Rachel proves him right, but with complications.

She confesses to EMT John Warwick that, in addition to having "several drinks at the office do," she is taking Prozac. The two don't mix.

Rachel is literally kicking and screaming as they force her into the ambulance for her trip to hospital.

On what turns out to be their busiest night on record, Lesslar's team treats more than 23 patients and diverts at least 15 from hospital emergency rooms.

"Can't hope for anything more than that, really, can you? We keep the ambulances in the streets clear for real emergencies."

And his crew is unanimous in saying that despite "liking a drink myself," they rarely feel like cracking open a beer when they eventually make their own ways home.


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