HEMS Doctor, life-saver, human.


The following is an anonymous blog post kindly shared by a Helicopter Emergency Medical Service doctor regarding their interaction with Circus Head.


My first interaction with Circus Head was a flat white. I was on a sponsored walk along the Norfolk coastline, tramping through dunes and fields and villages on a balmy day of English summer. The Circus Head stall was at one of the checkpoints, next to a fold-up table of bananas and biscuits. I think I bought a coffee just for something to do, or out of habit more than anything else. I was expecting something containing caffeine, hopefully on the warmer side of tepid. I was handed a duck-egg blue paper cup, and the shape in the foam on top looked like a curved leaf of coastal bracken. The cup was warm in my hand. It was picture-perfect, and delicious.



When I bumped into Rob at a work event months later, I remembered the perfect coffee and sang its praises. I think I said it was “much better than it needed to be”, and he took it the way I’d meant it. He told me a bit more about Circus Head and said I could come and help out, if I was interested. I said yes without thinking about it, and even now, having thought about it, I’m not sure why I said yes. Maybe because it was one of the first things which had appealed to me in a while. I wasn’t struggling: I was just getting through the endless to-do list of adult life. I’ve definitely been worse. I’m lucky – I wanted for nothing in life. I hadn’t realised that it had actually maybe been a few months since I wanted something in life – looked forward to something with eagerness, craved something. I was getting by absolutely fine, but spending a day making coffee was the first thing in a while which sounded fun.


Above: Rob at work


The thing about making coffee is that it’s low-risk, high-reward. Pull an espresso shot, steam some milk, assemble. The end product is always very drinkable. Even a really bad coffee – a wet, tepid cappuccino – is still good enough for me to drink, even if not good enough to serve.

Conversely the decisions I make, and procedures I perform in my day job are sometimes high-risk, and the outcomes are often heartrending. There is always suffering, and some of it cannot be alleviated. I love my work: it is a privilege to work in a team that strives to remove pain and preserve life. In truth, my work is my purpose in life. But immersed in work, surrounded by other people who do the same work, I had become used to shouldering a hulking burden of responsibility, and had not realised how it weighs on me: I pick it up willingly, and I’m used to it. But I had entirely forgotten how light and breezy it feels to do something creative, constructive, skilful, with low stakes – my only responsibility being to try to make the cappuccino appropriately frothy and hot (and to call Rob to rescue it if I burn the milk).

To be on the steep part of a learning curve, developing a new skill, busy and immersed in the moment, is the perfect diversion for someone like me, who hasn’t really mastered the art of relaxation, or sitting still. I love to be busy, to be helpful, to have something to offer – probably some of the reasons I went into healthcare. Making coffee offers the same fulfilment on an easy-breezy scale: there are no crises in coffee.

I also got a more concrete kickback, in the form of drinking all of my failed coffees, and a couple of exemplary ones Rob made. I was drinking them differently to how I usually would: trying to taste whether I’d burnt the milk, judging the size of the bubbles in the steamed milk, working out the difference between the drip coffee and the espresso. I got interested in what I was drinking. And that curiosity has stayed with me in the weeks since. I’ve been paying a bit more attention to my morning coffee. I bought some different beans the other day. I’ve stopped looking at my phone and started looking out the kitchen window as I drink it, watching the neighbour’s ivy slowly encroach over the top of the wall, growing week by week. It’s a little moment of pleasure, which was always there for the taking. There was just a time when I didn’t have the energy or the enthusiasm to find it, or the capacity to feel it, immersed as I was in grief. I don’t blame myself for that. But I’m glad that at the moment I can feel those light, bright moments of peace, which are no less or more real than the chasms of pain to which we bear witness.