This week I want to tell you about the time I died on Salisbury Plain. I also died in Scotland, twice in Norfolk and several times in Birmingham. In fact I died twice in one day in Birmingham. I could have died in Norway too but I gave that one a miss. I’m talking about the weird and wonderful world of Action Casualty Simulation…emergency medical training using real amputees to inject realism into exercises with the military, blue light services and other security agencies. Believe me I died an Oscar worthy death every time, usually for £80 a day plus travelling expenses.
You may or may not know that Government agencies are constantly running terrorist and major-incident exercises to prepare in the event of the real thing. So we worked at mock up train crashes, shopping centre attacks, marathon bombings, university shootings and also many military training exercises covering a multitude of scenarios. I was fortunate to ‘stumble’ into this line of work after seeing an article in a magazine about an outfit called Amputees in Action. I was bowled over by their slogan. ‘Our loss is your gain’. Isn’t that genius. Sign me up!
We had ultra realistic gory soft prosthetics made to look like mangled, blown up limbs, our faces were made up like they’d been ripped open, oh and there was lots and lots of fake blood. Enough fake blood to turn a blonde girl pink if your hair was caught in the line of fire. Stashed in thin surgical gloves with a pin hole in, I squirted and bled out over anyone who came near me. Given the realism expected and the short time it actually takes an amputee to bleed to death, I often died very quickly if I wasn’t treated properly. By that I mean by not being given a tourniquet, not a bunch of flowers and a compliment. I remember going on an exercise to a purpose built Afghan village, in a secret location, a war zone, littered with burnt out cars, rubble, fallen down buildings and lots of locals wailing and crying. It felt amazingly real. The adrenaline really pumped, as well as the fake blood! I was dressed as a local with my baby doll nicknamed Beyoncé, it was night time, I was pushed screaming from a slow moving pick up truck at the gates of a temporary military camp. Clearly in need of medical attention but clearly also looking like a potential security threat, I sadly died at the gates in the mud. Little Beyoncé never stood a chance. But listening to the soldiers rationalise what they wanted to do against what they had to do was heart breaking. Me and my bloody performance injected realism into their difficult decision making. They had to let me die to minimise the risk of an attack on their camp. I have nothing but respect for them.
I’ve been stretchered out, dragged out, thrown over shoulders, pulled on tarpaulins and helicoptered out of scenes you’d happily pay to see in a Hollywood movie. I’ve been next to explosions, had a gun in my face, covered in rubble and left for dead in the mud. I’ve seen people executed, taken hostage or run for their lives. I’ve seen the worst human nature has to offer acted out in front of my eyes. But I also had the privilege of seeing soldiers, police and paramedics run into these situations with courage, compassion and skills, knowing full well if the real thing happened they were prepared and would do exactly the same. I still feel great pride having taken part in these exercises even in the small way I could.
Some of the guys I worked with hadn’t even seen a real amputee before. I made people cry, made them vomit, made them freeze and be unable to continue. I can be a shocker when I want to. The idea is to desensitise these guys to the shock of seeing a blown up leg, arm or face. The impact of that alone in the field could mean life or death to someone. In the event of a major trauma like losing a limb, it’s not a medic that will save you, it’s the person next to you, so the quicker and more rationally they can react the better chance you have of surviving.
Then there’s the people who don’t believe you’re a real amputee. I remember being laid on a stretcher performing my arse off as a wounded soldier with the blood, the screaming, they got the lot with both barrels. I was saved by a quick thinking efficient A&E Consultant from Fife. At the end of the scenario he said ‘go on then, how do they make it look like you’ve only got one leg?!!’ Now for a doctor I feel he strongly overestimated how good our make up artists actually were! They were less Paul Daniels and more Maybellene. He fully expected me to get up off the table and walk out. Imagine his face when I explained.
The same thing happened on the set of the Bad Education movie, when I played Peggy Sue the one legged strumpet stripper alongside Jack Whitehall. Wearing a prosthetic leg that was literally made of no more than a broom handle, half the crew didn’t realise I was a real amputee. Maybe I really do deserve that Oscar if I’m so good!
I remember being at the train station and a man sashayed over to me in my wheelchair and said ‘I don’t mean to be funny love but you look like you’ve only got one leg’. Imagine his face when I said ‘you aren’t funny at all, just offensive, witless and rude”.
It’s almost like people look at the top half of me and decide that there can’t possibly be anything faulty with the bottom half. Amputees clearly have a pigeon hole, a category, a stereotype that me and many many others really don’t match. I wonder if it works in the opposite direction. If they saw my incomplete bottom half first, would they then assume the top half of me must be knackered too? My guess is they would. Their generalisation is very wrong. I think that could be the subject of a whole other discussion on another blog Sunday.
So I want to challenge those misconceptions around disability and the best way is to get out there and be seen. So I’m going to face the fears, do the things, dance the moves, sing the songs and hope everyone will never underestimate this one legged blonde.