It takes seconds to save a life. Precious ticking passing seconds.

When I was taken by the Police to hospital, they gently handed me over to hospital staff. Then I was taken into a small room and offered tea, to soften the blow of the bad news they had to tell me. Then Melanie’s possessions were brought in, in a simple brown envelope. Amongst the few items removed from her was her watch, which I had bought for her only recently. The hands still gently sweeping an arc around the face. I sat and stared at it, trying to take in the enormity of what had just happened.

Time © John MacPherson
Time © John MacPherson

Now, with the passage of time, about three weeks to be wildly imprecise, I’ve been able to talk to some of the various people involved in Melanie’s ‘rescue’ and now realize just how important each few seconds of their individual involvement has been. And what their total effort amounts to.

As Melanie lay on the tarmac, unconscious, facing skywards, and the second hand swept around her watch, many hands passed across her face too….

The woman who was with her, only a few seconds behind as they both ran through the rain to an outbuilding, didn’t stop to ponder, but quickly reached over Melanie’s crumpled body and banged desperately on a window to summon help then phoned 999.

Melanie was unconscious but breathing at that point. Her colleagues rushed outside in response to the banging, one immediately ran across the street to the Fire Station, the other dropped to his knees and established Melanie was still breathing. But then she suddenly stopped so he immediately started CPR and vigorously fought to oxygenate her. He did not hesitate either, so a few more seconds were saved.

His colleague meanwhile had found all the fire personnel outside having just completed a morning exercise, the team alert and fully clad in all their kit. He did not have to try to establish where the entry door was, nor have to shout to try to alert the firemen: they were there, only 75 meters away, ready to respond. They grabbed breathing kit and ran, a firewoman and two firemen sprinting desperately, and began urgent oxygenation and CPR, almost cracking Melanie’s ribs in the process. Because they were there and ready a few more seconds were saved.

The time was around 11.30 maybe a little later, but as it was just before the lunchtime rush-hour, the roads were clear and the ambulance arrived in minutes. The ambulance staff ‘shocked’ her to restart her heart. No response. Three attempts were made, the last managing to elicit a weak and scrambled rhythm. A frantic blue-light dash back to ICU. Several more seconds saved on the still quiet road.

She was immediately connected to life support equipment, sedation, and a ‘chiller’ to reduce body temperature and hopefully reduce brain swelling as a consequence of the lack of oxygen.

Melanie’s quick-witted colleagues had fought to pass the baton of time to the fire staff, who passed it on to the ambulance staff, who handed it over to the critical care team.

Seconds. Just a few, here and there, saved. You’d normally not notice them. They’d fly past unremarked upon. But their total accumulation on that day? They amount to a life, saved.

William enjoys the view of the city lights from the hospital © John MacPherson
William enjoys the view of the city lights from the hospital © John MacPherson

Melanie has some short-term memory issues, will have to re-learn to write, but everything else so far seems intact. She is very very lucky. She has said that a priority is to visit and personally thank all the folk involved in giving her the second chance that very few of us will enjoy. And to help ease her back into her real life our son’s Primary School, who have been hugely supportive to us, have invited her to come in and give a talk to the Primary children on her specialist subject area, paleoecology, so they are all looking forwards to a morning of microscopes, pollen, fossils and dinsosaurs. Melanie has a gift for making the past come alive, and underlining its importance in shaping how we are today. How appropriate.

No cause for this episode has been found despite exhaustive tests. As a precaution she has been fitted with a small subcutaneous defib unit that will monitor her heart and if she needs a ‘jump start’ it will kick in and take over. It can be ‘interrogated’ via wireless and information about her daily heart rhythm uploaded to a server via a separate box connected to the ‘net, which can alert the hospital to abnormal activity. Her internal device can also ‘buzz’ her to alert her that a slight heart abnormality has occurred so she may contact the hospital for assistance.

With this fitted her life should return to something close to normal. Time alone will tell. But she has it now to find out, time.

Her bedside is littered with photos sent by her colleagues as I’d suggested, and they have proved hugely valuable in jogging her memory, and in confirming for the nursing staff that her memories of her ‘past life’ are correct. Only simple photographs, but their unassuming ‘stories’ held the promise of recollection. There is power in an image that we can only guess at, they gave Melanie a glimpse of where she needed to go, and allowed her anxious colleagues to feel empowered as contributors to her recovery. This event has made me reappraise (yet again) this ‘craft’ we too often take for granted, and what it can enable us to do.

Photographs, reflections, memory © John MacPherson
Photographs, reflections, memory © John MacPherson

Melanie was able to sit up in her bed yesterday and put her arms around one of her colleagues portrayed in those pictures, one of the first few on the scene whose prompt actions in administering CPR as she lay on the ground probably saved her from either serious and irrecoverable brain damage, or possibly death. She was able to hug him tightly.

“What can I say….” she said softly, emotionally “….what can I say……just…..thank you.”



  • Melanie Simcock

    Thank you for sharing your story with others. I am very pleased there was a happy ending. I live in Central London during the week and twice in under 2 weeks I have found women collapsed and have had to call 999! I have never had to do so before so its amazing that it should happen twice in such a short time. Thankfully neither were unconscious. However, the next one might be and its a few years since I did any first aid training. Your account has spurred me on to look for a course and make sure I know how to save a life. I wish you and your family a very special festive season. Melanie

    • My goodness Melanie you’ve caught me off guard. Thanks for letting me know you’ve read my posts and its made you realize you have the ability to save someone. I hope you never have to.
      Best wishes

  • John,

    very glad and relieved for you that things are looking more positive, hope it continues, best, Damian

    • Cheers Damian – this is going to be a pretty good Christmas, and one we didn’t expect to enjoy. Melanie is currently sitting in living room playing with our wee boy. Our NHS is remarkable, and the care we received was exemplary, and has helped produce this unexpected outcome.

  • Justin Leighton

    “Melanie’s quick-witted colleagues had fought to pass the baton of time to the fire staff, who passed it on to the ambulance staff, who handed it over to the critical care team.”

    you hit me in the guts with this.

    I collapsed (heart) at Tescos car park of all places. Just went over. Two British Transport Police were there buying a sandwich. They saw me go over. Back of the car, blue light into AE, within 4 mins. (so I was told) … I’m still here. I was luck. They probably had to buy another sandwich.

    Thank you John for all your updates. (as you can see I don’t have the gift for writing !)

    • Another lucky person! Those few seconds matter immensely.

      Thanks for sticking with the unfolding story Justin – I guess it’s not been an easy read, but I wanted to do it in the moment, rather than with the benefit of hindsight. Been a rollercoaster ride and one I wont forget.

      Thanks for your generous comments about my writing – but you have the gift of reading, which is just as valuable!

      Stay well.

  • K Petzke

    John, I don’t have words to describe what I’m feeling for your family right now. Love to all of you.

    • Hello Karl – thanks for checking in. Been a bit of an adventure for everyone, but we’re planning for Christmas this week, which we were not doing the week before last!
      Hope all is well with you.

  • John, I saw your post via a tweet from Nick W-B. What an amazing story. It brought me to tears and I hardly know you either. I’m so happy for you all. I’m reminded again and again that we should live in the present moment and fully appreciate what we have. Thanks for sharing this, a great reminder. Beautifully written.

    • Thank you Andy. Its been an epic three weeks and could so easily have had a vastly different outcome. Neighbours, friends, relatives, strangers have all been so overwhelmingly generous, concerned and supportive it’s been remarkably invigorating. But that’s no surprise to me because I have great faith in my fellow (wo)men to do the right thing, whether on the grand scale, like to kneel down and save a life, or more simply to send a few words of support that express your fellow-feeling. It all helps. And truth is it could have been any one of us on their backs and dying and it is a stark reminder both of our vulnerability, but also our ability to save others from theirs.

John MacPherson was born and lives in the Scottish Highlands. He trained as a welder in the Glasgow shipyards, before completing an apprenticeship as a carpenter, and then qualified as a Social Worker in Disability Services. Along the way he has cooked on canal barges, trained as an Alpine Ski Leader & worked as an Instructor for Skiers with disabilities, been a canoe instructor, and tutor of night classes in carpentry, stained glass design and manufacture, and archery. He has travelled extensively on various continents, undertaking solo trips by bicycle, or motorcycle. He has had narrow escapes from an ambush by terrorists, been hit by lightning, caught in an erupting volcano, trapped in a mobile home by a tornado, kidnapped by a dog's hairdresser, rammed by a basking shark and was once bitten by a wild otter. He has combined all this with professional photography, which he has practised for over 35 years. He teaches photography and acts as a photography guide & tutor in the UK and abroad. His biggest challenge is keeping his 27 year old Land Rover 110 on the road. He loves telling and hearing stories.

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