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Nothing had changed.
Zoe Harper released the breath she hadn't realised she'd been holding, in a sigh of pure relief. The sound went unheard thanks to the wail of the siren outside the vehicle she was in.
It could have been yesterday she'd done her last shift as an intensive care paramedic instead of.. goodness, how many months ago was it?
Enough to have made her afraid that it would feel different. Be impossible, even, given the changes in her life since then. That what had seemed a brave decision could turn out to be disastrous and that it might even send her life tumbling back into a place so awful it was too terrifying to contemplate.
But this was good. Better than good.
'Traffic's a nightmare.' Her crew partner for the day, Tom, leaned on the air horn and tried to manoeuvre the ambulance through a narrow gap. 'Bet you wish you'd stayed home with the baby a bit longer, eh?'
Being at home with five-month-old Emma instead of heading towards a multi-vehicle pile-up on the south entrance to the Grafton Bridge?
'No way.' Zoe grinned at Tom. 'Bring it on.' She meant every word. There was more than relief to be found here. There was hope.
This was an opportunity to step back into the life she'd always chosen for herself. To shut the door, albeit temporarily, on what had become her new life. But it was about more than simply a job. This was the chance to find out if the person she'd always believed herself to be still existed.
Working at Australia's premier teaching hospital on the shores of Sydney harbour might be a dream come true but the hospital's central location didn't help when it came to traffic hassles after a consult at one of the suburban hospitals.
And while this new car was superb to handle and its leather upholstery supremely comfortable, no sports car on earth was designed for somebody who was six feet four with the build of a well-conditioned rugby player.
Teo Tuala flexed his shoulders and neck as the traffic inched forward and then came to another complete halt. He could see the flashing lights of emergency vehicles up near the bridge and now he could hear the chop of rotors from an approaching helicopter getting steadily louder. If they were calling for air transport, it must be a fairly serious accident. Maybe they could use some assistance. Being in the left lane, Teo was able to nudge his sleek car out of the queue of vehicles and onto the motorway shoulder. He flicked his hazard lights on and got out of the confined space. A police officer, edging his way through the traffic jam on a motorbike, swerved into the space he'd created.
He was shaking his head. 'You can't park there, mate.'
'I'm a doctor,' Teo responded. 'Thought they might be able to use a hand up there.'
The young officer's expression changed. 'Hop on,' he offered. 'I'll get you on scene.'
Teo could see why the traffic was so disrupted as he got closer. Three vehicles were involved. One was upside down and partially crushed. Another was wedged between the upside-down car and the bridge supports. The third car was being towed from where it was blocking another two lanes of the highway.
Firemen were using pneumatic equipment to cut into the vehicles. The helicopter was hovering directly overhead, looking for a place to land. There was a background wail of additional emergency service vehicles approaching the scene from the opposite direction. The noise was overwhelming and yet Teo could still hear the shrieks of a terrified person who seemed to be trapped in one of those cars.
And it sounded like a small person.
A quick visual scan of the scene revealed the most senior ambulance officer amongst the knot of police and fire service personnel. The fluorescent vest with 'Scene Commander' on the back was being worn by a woman.
Teo stepped closer. 'Hey, there '
The woman ignored his greeting. Her attention was still directed to a young, far more junior ambulance officer.
'Have you got access to the back seat?'
'The firies are working on that. That door's jammed as well.'
'And she's trapped?'
'Yes. Her leg's caught under the dash.'
'Get a C collar on her and keep her still until we can extricate her. Stay in the back seat and keep her head immobilised.'
The scene commander's head swivelled even further from where Teo was standing as another male paramedic approached. The movement, under the early morning sunshine, sent flickers of colour like small flames through her hair. She had pale skin, he noted, with a scattering of freckles on her nose and the top of her cheeks.
'What's up, Tom?'
'We need you. Oxygen saturation levels on the driver are dropping and there's a kid in a car seat in there as well that we can't get to.
Too tight a squeeze for me. The firies reckon they've got the wreck stable. Thought you might be game to crawl underneath.'
The nod came without the slightest hesitation that Teo could detect. 'What status is the child?'
'Can't tell. The seat's upside down and the roof is badly dented on that side. I can see an arm. I reckon it's a toddler more than a baby.'
'I'm a paediatrician,' Teo cut in. 'Can I be of any assistance?'
She looked at him now. Green eyes were assessing him rapidly but with keen attention. He had the impression that he'd passed some kind of test. Pulling off her vest, she handed it to Tom. 'Take over scene control,' she told him. 'There're two more trucks responding and we should be able to start transporting using the northern lanes. The police are clearing an area for the chopper to get down but we'll keep them on standby until we know what's happening with the rolled car.'
She pulled another vest from a container labelled 'Major Incident' and handed it to Teo. 'Put this on,' she ordered. 'And come with me.'
This vest had 'Doctor' on the back. It was a tight squeeze for his large frame but Teo got it on as he followed Zoe. It took only seconds to get amongst the knot of fire officers working on the vehicle. Teo had to watch his feet as he stepped over the thick black cables that connected the cutting gear to the power generators. A blanket marked a patch of ground where a paramedic kit was opened beside a life pack and an oxygen cylinder. Tubing from the cylinder was attached to a bag mask unit being held over the face of the driver by another ambulance officer. A policewoman was holding a bag of IV fluid aloft, its tubing snaking in through the broken window.
'Any change?' Zoe queried.
'Sats down to 95. BP's still dropping. Ninety-five on 60 now. We should be able to get her out any minute.'
Zoe's nod was curt. 'I'll assess her for intubation as soon as she's clear.' She turned to Teo. 'Stay here,' she commanded. 'I'm going to take a few seconds to see if I can get to the child. If it's alive, we'll get it out and I'll hand over to you. The driver's status 1 and I'll need to focus on her.'
Teo knew that meant the victim was in a life-threatening situation. Was it the child's mother? Was the child badly hurt as well? Teo normally saw his patients in the well-controlled environment of a paediatric ward or sometimes the emergency department. This was the first time he'd been on scene in a situation like this. The tension was palpable. The working conditions were astonishingso many people, so much noise, the smell of fuel and hot metal. How hard would it be to focus?
He watched the redheaded paramedic having a short but intense conversation with a fire officer. She jammed a hard hat onto her head and then lay down, edging herself beneath the wreck of the car's chassis.
Teo felt his breath leave his body in a silent whistle. Not only was it a challenge to focus in this kind of environment but these people were clearly willing to put themselves at considerable physical risk as well. This would be impressive at any time but the actions of this woman called Zoe were positively mind-blowing.