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3 July 2006

The day we knew would come

When it happened we were ready, recalls Lucy Chapman, a London hospital doctor

By Lucy Chapman

“Lucy, the hospital’s on standby for a major incident,” said my registrar as he passed me on the way out of the meeting at just after nine. My friend Amin and I, both junior doctors, wandered down to Casualty before the ward round to see if they needed us, debating and deciding against getting coffee on the way.

There was a hum of anticipation in A&E. Slowly, fragments of news had filtered through – a power surge causing an explosion, someone said; six Underground stations bombed, said someone else. We were put into trauma teams and we waited, watching the clock, preparing to deal with the day that everyone had dreaded would come, but no one quite expected.

The first casualty was rushed through by an ambulance crew to screamed instructions – “This way, into the end bay” – her face burned black under the oxygen mask, the destroyed remnants of her hand visible above the blanket. Three more followed. As each team got to work, the noise rose and was silenced by the shout for quiet. Then another crew burst in with the next patient. His clothes were burned; he was cold from blood loss, arms flailing, looking up at us, mouth open but unable to speak. My job was to check for injuries: to see that nothing was blocking his throat, that his lungs had not burst, that he had a pulse. One leg had been ripped off above the knee, exposing flesh and jagged bone.

The A&E consultant oversaw the teams, directing us without fuss. The surgeons appeared in the resuscitation room within minutes, swiftly allocating patients and staff for instant transfer to theatres. Our patient was intubated, ventilated and wheeled away, and another arrived. Everybody – ambulance crew, nurses, porters and doctors – was focused completely on specific tasks, on doing what he or she could. An eminent consultant rolled up his sleeves, clearing and remaking beds. It made me proud to work there, to witness the practical idealism that sustains the NHS.

All of the seriously injured casualties had been dealt with by 11am. A&E was empty. Our makeshift trauma team had handled four major casualties in succession. Amin and I went back upstairs to see the rest of our team. We sat around in the doctors’ office and were unusually quiet. Everyone agreed that we had known it was coming, ever since the war in Iraq. “If it’s Muslims who have done this . . . that’s quite bad,” Amin said, trailing off. He has a genius for understatement, and was feeling a bit awkward, being a believer. A few people nodded absent-mindedly. James, a standard-issue public-school-boy doctor, said wistfully: “I think we ought to bring back the IRA. I mean, they used to give us warning.” “I don’t understand it,” said John, one of our registrars. “Why they would go for Edgware Road and Aldgate if they were Muslim extremists . . .” No one really wanted to go into it. It seemed futile.

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Later, walking in the hazy evening sun, I passed through streets full of people moving about quietly and yet animated by a strange sort of energy. I arrived home in a daze, but feeling a slow-rising anger: at the bombers, for choosing London; at the Prime Minister for his childish certainties and easy insincerity; at myself, and all of us, for our impotence.

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A year later, I still haven’t got a cogent intellectual response to the bombings. But I know one thing: it would not be possible to do this to people if you thought of them as human. Charred bodies and torn limbs are the same, no matter where they are, or what motivates the bomber. Civilians have died in London, and what separates them from the civilian dead in Basra is just a few thousand miles.

Lucy Chapman is a pseudonym