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Emergency heroes with no time to lose

Everybody hates hospitals. Nobody wants to spend any more time than is absolutely necessary inside one – which, preferably, would be no time at all.

Hospitals are places of healing, comfort and recovery, yes, but they're also where you're likely to receive the worst news you want to hear.

I'd venture most of us associate hospitals with what happens at opposite ends of life's journey: the joyous birth of a child, or the death of a parent, sibling or friend.

And yet, viewers seemingly can't get enough of documentaries about them. Series like Channel 4's 24 Hours in A&E, BBC2's Your Life in Their Hands and TV3's Temple Street Children's Hospital have been healthy ratings hits. There are satellite channels devoted to little else but medical documentaries.


But I suspect even the most hardened among you will find your hearts in your mouths during tonight's new three-part series An Hour to Save Your Life (BBC2, 9pm). It's a relentlessly tough watch.

Documentaries about medical emergencies tend to show what happens once a patient has arrived at the hospital. You never get to see the circumstances leading up to the visit. An Hour to Save Your Life focuses on the decisions made by paramedics and doctors in the 60 minutes after a 999 call – the so-called "golden hour" – which can often mean the difference between life and death. And it does so in an unflinchingly close-up, on-the-spot manner that's quite new.

It follows three different emergency teams simultaneously. The London Air Ambulance helicopter, which can reach anywhere in the city within 12 minutes, rushes to the aid of a 31-year-old man called Rumen, a pedestrian who's been hit by a car.

He's covered in blood and may have fractured ribs, a broken pelvis and a damaged abdomen. One thing that's immediately clear is that both his legs have been shattered.

"If you leave it too long there is always the risk he could lose his legs," says the doctor on the scene, a woman called MJ.

She shoots Rumen full of a painkiller 10 times stronger than morphine and then administers a drug to paralyse his muscles, including the ones in his chest, as too much movement could prevent his blood clotting.

In Oxford Street, paramedic Eoin, who cuts through the traffic on a bicycle, arrives to find Zoe (29) has collapsed and is suffering cardiac arrest. He yells at rubberneckers to clear off. "This is an undignified place to have a cardiac arrest," he says, "but is there any dignity in death?"

A specialist response car arrives minutes later. The chief doctor, Gareth, notes that Zoe's pupils are "massively dilated and fixed, just like you see in death". Her brain cells have begun to die; if she survives, it may be with serious brain damage.

Inside an ambulance, Gareth cools Zoe's body down to a state of hypothermia, in order to slow the disintegration of her brain cells – or as he chillingly puts it, to prevent her brain "eating itself".


In Nottingham, meanwhile, a farmer called Bill (66), who has been crushed against a wall by a 650kg cow, is proving unresponsive to morphine. Attending doctor Simon, who fears one of Bill's internal organs may have been crushed, gives him a horse tranquilliser. Bill continues to howl in pain.

With its split screen technique, thump-thump soundtrack and on-screen counter, An Hour to Save Your Life could easily have ended up being a grotesque and invasive piece of TV voyeurism. It doesn't.

It's definitely hard to sit through most of the time and you'll feel like a wrung-out dishcloth by the end of it. But the strongest feeling is admiration for the everyday heroes and heroines of the medical profession, and for the astonishing things made possible by modern medical science.

MJ says at one point: "I tell the paramedics not to rush. It's medicine, not magic."

Be that as it may, it's still miraculous.