Thanks to my NHS angel

Ellen Widdup’s escape to the country

I have only rung 999 three times in my life.

The first was about five years ago when I saw a man taking a leisurely stroll down the hard shoulder of the M1.

The second was when I was living opposite a rather unsavory pub in north London and witnessed a wedding party descend into a mass brawl, with the bride throwing a pint glass at her new husband.

The third was last week.

My son has asthma – although, at two-and-half, they don’t officially diagnose a child as asthmatic. Instead, they refer to his problem as a “viral-induced wheeze”.

His attacks are brought on during or after a cold – a runny nose, a barking cough and, sometimes, a temperature to boot.

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He starts breathing rapidly and sucking in his chest, curling up on the floor in an effort to conserve all his energy to concentrate on the task of getting enough oxygen into his tiny lungs.

The tips of his fingers go white, his lips get a bluish tinge and I can see panic in his wide-open eyes.

It is frightening if he deteriorates quickly.

There is a gut-wrenching lurch of sheer adrenaline when you realise you can’t be the one to make it better and you need to find someone who can.

When we lived in the capital our flat was practically next door to the Royal Free Hospital, so help was always at hand.

I became used to dropping in to the A&E department almost every other week and the nurses all knew my son by name. “You again?” they would tut good-naturedly and, even if he was feeling dreadful, he could always muster a winning smile in return.

Several hours of observation, a short sharp burst from a nebuliser and a shot of liquid steroids usually put him right.

But even as we were sent on our merry way, inhaler in hand, I was already worrying about when the next attack would come.

You might think we were mad to leave behind our doctor on the doorstep to move to Suffolk – where the fastest route from Melton to Ipswich Hospital would take the best part of 20 minutes.

But my son’s consultant assured us we were doing the right thing.

And at a review appointment with the paediatric team last month, I was told his health had improved dramatically in the time we have been living here.

“He is being exposed to less pollution and the fresh air is doing him the world of good,” was the doctor’s summation.

Buoyed by these words, I barely listened when he added: “But just because he hasn’t had an attack for seven months does not mean it won’t happen again.”

And, of course, it happened again at the most inconvenient time. My husband was working a night shift, my daughter was fast asleep in bed, and after a short illness of my own I was on medication prohibiting me from driving.

My son appeared at the top of the stairs in his pyjamas, looking confused. At first I thought he was sleep-walking, until I heard the unmistakable rasp of his breathing.

It sounds crazy but I hesitated before dialing 999. I didn’t want to be accused of being a panicked parent or of over-reacting.

We have all read the stories about the dreadful time-wasters who clog up the emergency services hotline with whimsical complaints.

Last year the East of England Ambulance Service had calls from members of the public who had lost their contact lenses, were suffering toothache, needed a lift home from work or had a splinter in their toe.

I gave my son his inhaler and took his pulse. “I don’t feel well,” he panted. And immediately I came to my senses and reached for the phone.

The ambulance service is extraordinary. Within 10 minutes of explaining his symptoms to the call centre, we had a paramedic on the doorstep.

She was a lovely woman, reassuring and incredibly patient. She gave my son oxygen as well as all his usual meds and measured his heart on a portable ECG machine. She let him play with her stethoscope while she watched the rise and fall of his chest.

She stayed with us for nearly two hours, monitoring his vital signs, until finally he fell asleep in my arms, his breathing calm and measured again.

“You made the right decision calling us,” she said. “He needed a bit of help and I got here just in time.

“I don’t think we need to whisk him to hospital tonight. But I’m in your area and if you have any more worries just call for me again.”

As she drove off into the night, with her blue lights flashing, I felt choked with emotion.

The NHS is a wonderful thing and we are incredibly lucky to live in a country where we can access free healthcare so easily.

In particular, those people who work on the frontline of medical care deserve our utmost respect and gratitude.

I was too flustered to ask the name of the dark-haired paramedic who came to our rescue last Monday.

But if she is out there – and reading this – thank you.

• Please email me on or find me on Twitter @EllenWiddup.