You won't believe what I see every day: The head of a busy A&E unit says a new fly-on the-wall series will leave you gasping
22:26 GMT, 27 April 2012
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Dr Tunnicliff let cameras into his own A&E, making him the star of one of the most memorable fly-on-the-wall documentaries of recent times
Hence his reluctance when he was approached and asked what he felt about letting cameras into his own A&E. ‘I had to be convinced. My worry was it would be edited to show a sanitised version of what we do. Happily, it wasn’t.’
The ensuing programme – 24 Hours In A&E – aired last year and was one of the most memorable fly-on-the-wall documentaries of recent times. Hard-hitting, yet touchingly human, it featured victims of violent crime fighting for their lives alongside pensioners nursing splinters. It captured the gruelling world of the emergency room, but also found humour and a very British stoicism.
It also made TV stars of Dr Tunnicliff and his team. One member of staff, the unflappable Sister Jen, found herself being embraced by a stranger in the supermarket. Other fans turned up at the doors of the department with thank you cards, or just messages of support. ‘It was overwhelming,’ he says. ‘It’s been a real morale boost.’
Enlightening: Dr Tunnicliff hopes the stories in the new series will show the public what his team actually do
He says he was also surprised at how affected he was when he discovered, through the show, what had happened to a few critically ill patients he treated. Some of the most dramatic stories – including that of Greek student Theodore Chatziapostolou who was trapped under a bus, his body folded in half – were updated at the end of the series.
‘We don’t usually get that, and I found it incredibly touching. When he was brought in I didn’t think he’d make it. So when his progress was updated I remember thinking, “Who on earth is that” He was unrecognisable. It brought a tear to my eye.’
Now the cameras are back for a second series which promises more of everything – from stabbings to toddlers with peas stuck up their nose. And for the first time, some of the 95 cameras have been positioned in the CT scanner room, where critical diagnoses are made, and in paediatrics.
I find a lot of shows about emergency medicine give a glossy view of what we do… It’s rare that you get a warts-and-all account of what it’s really like.
For programme makers, there must be a fear that nothing exciting will happen within the 24-hour period they record. Dr Tunnicliff – a confessed adrenaline junkie who volunteers to go out with the air ambulance crews on his days off – doesn’t share that worry. ‘The outlandish storylines aspect is the one thing I don’t criticise TV dramas for, because much of what we do is unbelievable.’
One of the most distressing cases he’s been involved with falls into that category. This isn’t in the series because it happened outside filming, but most people will be aware of the case, given the patient in question was Thusha Kamaleswaran, the five-year-old paralysed after being caught in a shooting in her uncle’s shop. CCTV images of the girl dancing in the aisle before collapsing were released at the trial of her attackers last month.
Dr Tunnicliff – himself a father of three – headed the team that saved Thusha’s life, after she arrived at A&E clinically dead. ‘I remember taking the call. The doctor at the scene said, “You won’t believe this but we’re bringing in a five-year-old who’s been shot.” I thought I’d misheard. It’s probably the most harrowing case I’ve dealt with.’
The question of whether he did enough still keeps him awake at night, he says. ‘That’s the nature of the job. The same day Thusha came in I treated a 13-year-old girl who’d fallen from a great height. She died. I went home after that shift in bits.’
He hopes that the stories in the new series will go even further in showing the public what his team actually do – and the challenges they face. ‘I don’t expect it’ll be “nice” viewing, but I hope it will be truthful viewing, because this is how it is for us, day in day out.’
24 Hours In A&E, 16 May, 9pm, Channel 4.