After spending the last 12 years making a living out of what many see as a pampered life, driving everything from a Unimog to an F1 car, I began this new year by finally deciding to make good on a unfulfilled resolution to drive an ambulance around Metro Manila for a few days.
But this was no ordinary test drive; this was more about spending a day in the life of a Metro Manila ambulance driver––not necessarily to live out a childhood dream––but to understand what they go through everyday as they perform one of the world’s most stressful jobs in the sixth most populous city in the world.
Naturally, you don’t just show up to these things, flash a journalist ID and immediately get to play with the sirens. This story took months and months of convincing. Aside from lives being on the line, there are legal implications involved should anything go wrong and I’m found to be operating an emergency vehicle without the proper training.
So once I finally got the nod, I needed to undergo a full day in the Lifeline EMT Academy in Sucat, where the medical director, Doctor Richmond Patrick Wong, supervises the paramedic courses and makes sure I am trained in accordance with international modules, then given a practical exam by driving the ambulance while it is not responding to any codes.
Once Doc Wong was satisfied, I completed a full day with a crew as nothing more than an observer, then told to report to Shell Bayanan, which is the first Shell station after Filinvest on the Southbound lane of the SLEX, and eventually be given the keys to the Alpha Sarah.
Barely 10 minutes after arriving for duty, the two way radio crackles to life with a very calm, yet urgent voice. “Alpha Sarah, Code 5-0, Code 5-0” The team leader springs from his resting position in the front seat and barks back to confirm the message, and within 30 seconds or so, the entire team of 5 are in position.
I jump into the driver’s seat, which was perfectly adjusted for someone around a foot shorter than me and stomp on the throttle like I was putting out a lit cigarette. The big 7.3 liter diesel takes a while to spool up and moves about as quickly as the Philippine postal system––until it builds momentum––when it then becomes terrifyingly quick.
I say terrifying only because something this big should have a little garden and a mail box in front of it. Not an engine. It has a violent pull to the left––so much so that I actually angle myself to the right to compensate so I don’t need to fight it that much, and a shudder in the steering at certain speeds that could shake a filling out of your teeth. Combine that with the aerodynamics of a 3 bedroom home, and it basically feels like driving a washing machine.
The cacophony of sounds only adds to the terror. There’s the roar of the 7.3 liter diesel engine that sounds like it is gargling gravel, the deafening sound of the blaring sirens, plus a two way radio at full volume guiding you through and asking for minute by minute reports, as well as a team leader that needs to yell over all of this to communicate with me.
“C-5 Elevated! C-5 Elevated!” is all I hear. I ask the crew what a code 5-0 is, and whether that is serious or not. He tells me that a 5-0 is a vehicular accident, but every code they get is serious. So drive like lives depend on it, because they really do.
Besides which, the Alpha Sarah is the only extrication unit on the SLEX that is equipped with the jaws of life. The fact that they called us, and not the Alpha Vali that is already stationed on the NB lanes, tells us it is serious. Very serious.
I reach the Susana heights toll plaza so I can exit and then re enter the North Bound lanes, only to find it backed up with absolutely no space for the cars ahead of me to go even if they wanted to move. The tellers are going as fast as they can, but there’s nothing more they can do, which basically means I just need to crawl my way through.
Eventually, the road widens up enough for some cars to pull aside and let me through. I clear the toll only to enter it again on the Manila bound entry, and head back on the highway towards the C-5 exit. I’m squeezing everything I can from the engine and using language that could have me arrested trying to tell inconsiderate drivers to get the hell out of my way. I never thought I would ever see the day where I would hear myself say this, but when it comes to an ambulance responding to an emergency, public utility vehicles show more courtesy than some private vehicles. Seriously.
This is a fact that is confirmed to me by every Lifeline Ambulance driver I spoke to. Despite being brighter than a Christmas tree and louder than Vice Ganda, many private cars still pretend they can’t hear or see you and hog the left lane, forcing me to snake through traffic, which is both dangerous and unpleasant for the crew in the back. Not to mention the patients.
The frustration I’m feeling is beginning to manifest itself physically as I clench every muscle to the point of nausea. The pressure is immense; I know that it all boils down to me here. Nobody else. Everyone’s lives are in my hands. Literally. One wrong turn or missed exit from me could cost 5 minutes, which in an emergency, is usually the difference between life and death. And any mistake behind the wheel (whether by me or another vehicle) could also cause an accident and cost the crew their lives.
In fact, I’m told that more firefighters and paramedics lose their lives in transit than from any other cause. This sits in my mind as I straddle the fine line between keeping my crew safe, as well as other cars on the road, and getting to the scene as quickly as humanly possible.
I ride the horn again and wave my hands out the window as yet another idiot insists on hogging the left lane while maintaining the exact same speed as the other two cars on his right. I have nowhere to go, and I must be very careful to not get too close to his bumper because it takes me about as long to slow this thing down as Miley Cyrus and Lindsay Lohan on a drinking binge.
I ask if I can take the Skyway. “Negative Skyway! Negative Skyway!” my team leader yells, as there’s no way to access the C5 exit from there.
So I pass the Skyway on ramp, only to hear Central on the radio: “Take Skyway! Take Skyway! Then U turn at Magallanes.” Thing is, not only have I missed the exit, but I cannot work out how the Skyway will help us. Regardless, I follow instructions blindly and exit Bicutan, U turn by SM, enter the Skyway, and just keep it pinned to the floor.
Sure enough, we look down on a sea of cars building up as a result of the accident that’s paralyzing the bottom part of the SLEX. I’m completely floored on the Skyway and starting to max out at about 135 km/h. The wind drag just wont allow me to go any faster. The aircon is blowing straight at my face but there are still beads of sweat forming on my brow and getting in my eyes.
I’m picturing a multiple car accident with people pinned in their cars waiting for me, while trying to visualize the route they’ve instructed me to take in my head, and am getting physically ill from the thought that I cannot understand how I can access C5 exit by U turning at Magallanes.
The team tell me to just drive and don’t question, but I can’t help but feel we’re going nowhere fast. I approach the Nichols bridge on the southbound lanes and am literally coming up to a fork in the road. I really, really need to make a decision whether I go straight or turn off. I start yelling, which is uncharacteristic of me, but it’s almost an involuntary reaction born from a combination of fear and frustration.
As I come closer, I demand for an answer. The team leader just yells, “Stop!” Yes, as in stop. So right there, at the height of the emergency, I’m stopped right at the fork in the road so that I have two options once we get advice from the SLEX.