This week, some of our most experienced paramedics were thanked for a total of 189 years of help. Carolyn Millet talked to a few about why they signed up, why they stay, and their worst and best days.
If your middle name’s Brian, it’s possible you have the honour of being named after one of the longest-serving paramedics in Tamworth, Brian Bridges. He remembers delivering you in the back of the ambulance, and recalls you were part of a big family. You’re one of about five babies he’s helped bring into the world in his more than 30 years on the job, and among the highlights of his career.
A few days ago, Brian was presented with his long service and good conduct medal 2nd clasp and his national medal 1st clasp in recognition of his career, which he’s spent almost exclusively at the South Tamworth ambulance station.
He's experienced many, many changes in that time, but one thing has remained the same: it’s all about the people.
“It can be long, the hours – there’s no surety of knocking off on time … but the upsides are working with the people you work with and dealing with community issues, particularly with the elderly,” he says.
“To listen to some of their stories that stretch back to prior to you being born – they are great stories to listen to. Their history and knowledge is incredible.
“It’s not a case of bundling them up and transporting them, it’s a case of talking to them and getting to know them.”
Brian and other long-serving paramedics say they work a lot with the elderly, and in fact their most common job is what’s called – with as much affection as humour – ‘Nanna down’ or ‘Poppy down’.
Motor vehicle accidents and drownings used to be more prevalent; not so much now thanks to seatbelt and fencing laws, and more safety awareness campaigns.
Nowadays a large proportion of call-outs are for an elderly person who has fallen.
Paramedic Nicole Beacroft says ‘Nanna down’ and other terms such as ‘PFO’ (pissed and fell over), aren’t meant to be disrespectful but just shorthand terms that also help lighten the mood of what can be a distressing job.
“We’ve got a pretty dark sense of humour; you’ve got to make fun or else it’ll drive you crazy,” she says.
“I think every career has its little aspects and little in-jokes.”
Nicole says she tried a few other jobs before starting as a paramedic, including swim instructor, waitress and shelf packer “but it never quite ‘sat’”.
“It was never quite the challenge that I needed or wanted – then I joined the job and 12 years later, here we are,” she says.
After an eight-week training course at the centre in Rozelle, 10 months on the road with a mentor in Green Valley and three weeks’ further training in Rozelle, Nicole worked at Quirindi for seven years and has now been based at the south Tamworth station for coming up to three years.
Before that, she worked for about six months at Warialda. She says one of her most memorable jobs was when she and her work partner were first to an accident scene in Warialda on February 7, 2007. An overloaded ute had crashed, killing one teenager and injuring seven others – four critically – and then the Westpac Rescue Helicopter crashed on the way to help.
“The past 10 years have gone quickly; I love the job,” she says.
“Honestly, I joined because a friend was and she said, “I think you’d be good at it’. I did and I haven’t looked back.”
Nicole, who received a long service and good conduct medal this week, says a great aspect of the job is “it’s always something fresh”.
”You do continue to grow – I’m 12 years in the job, and I don’t think I’ll stop learning,” she says.
‘TIME IS TISSUE’
One of the most crucial updates in recent years, according to many local paramedics, is a greater ability they now have to help people who are having heart attacks, by administering a treatment called thrombolysis.
Heart attacks or acute myocardial infarctions are caused by a clot disrupting blood flow to the heart, and new gear and protocols mean paramedics can sometimes identify attacks and start treatment with clot-busting drugs before the patient even reaches hospital.
Brian says they do an ECG and transmit it via wifi to the mobile phone of a cardiologist, who rings back the phone number attached to that wifi and advises on whether or not to proceed with treatment at the scene or en-route.
“We’ve done several of those in the last few years; it’s been a big development for the service,” Brian says.
“One of my first patients (to have this treatment) was a man about 45 years old. By the time we started administering the anti-thrombolytic medication, we could see the ECG change; and by the time we took him to Tamworth Base Hospital, he was in pretty normal sinus rhythm, and was discharged 24 hours later.”
Nicole has similar stories of a Blackville woman and a Wallabadah man unfortunate enough to have a heart attack – the latter actually going into cardiac arrest – many critical minutes away from Tamworth hospital.
“[Because of this treatment,] these people are around and their heart is in better condition for it,” she says.
“It has been really exciting to see these services introduced.
“It’s no longer ‘scoop and run’, where you pick up a patient, jam on some oxygen and drive as quick as you can.”
Tamworth city station officer Kim Summers says the saying is ‘time is tissue’: the quicker a heart attack can be treated, the more healthy heart tissue can be saved, and a cardiac arrest – when the heart stops – is more likely to be prevented.
Kim took on her role as station officer in 2011 after previously serving in Wee Waa and Narrabri. She was thanked on Wednesday with a long service and good conduct medal after more than 10 years as a paramedic.
She originally studied nursing but was attracted to the ambulance service because of the diversity of work, and says she’s become “passionate about what we can provide to small communities in pre-hospital care”.
It’s not like on TV – except sometimes
The paramedics all say the job is great for the right person – but it’s not like on TV … most of the time.
South Tamworth station duty operations manager Sean O’Connor, who has been a paramedic for more than 35 years, says some of his most challenging jobs have been rescues.
This was part of the job he worked in for about two decades, including 10 years on the Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service chopper.
“The most challenging jobs were getting people out of vehicles and treating them … situations where two vehicles have collided, and there are multiple trapped people and limited resources.”
Sean says this is, again, where the people around a paramedic are so important.
“Without doubt, the best part of the job is the camaraderie,” he says.
“It’s a good bunch to work with. You go through some pretty traumatic things together and a relationship develops.”
Sean says it’s “quite an exciting time to be a paramedic” because developments are happening so quickly.
“There’s fabulous equipment on the (specialist rescue) truck now for rescue operations,” he says.
“We have battery-operated jaws of life – we were operating them manually by hydraulic pump.
“We have pneumatic lifting equipment for things such as small buildings and trains – yes, to lift them off people.
“There’s better lighting equipment … the equipment paramedics use these days, you can’t compare to when I started – it just didn't exist; it hadn’t been developed.”
Sean was this week presented with his long service and good conduct medal 2nd clasp and national medal 2nd clasp. He grew up in Tamworth, served almost exclusively there and was among the first paramedics to undertake an Advanced Life Support Course when this training was introduced in 1980.
The qualities that have kept Sean progressing through the ranks for more than three decades might be genetic: his daughter and son are a police officer and registered nurse respectively.
His wife was also a registered nurse, and while the whole family knew a bit about what he did, he says he “didn’t bring the job home, ever”.
‘I just like helping people’
The longest-serving paramedic at Wednesday’s ceremony at Tamworth Services Club was Greg Schiemer, who retired a few years ago.
He was handed several different awards for his 38 years on the job from 1975 – in Tamworth since 1994.
He joined because he “wanted something secure … I initially tried for the police force, but they told me I was too short, and too underweight in those years. So one day, I saw an ambulance go by and said, ‘I wonder?’”
He says he stayed in the job so long because “I just like helping people”, and is clearly touched to have been honoured by his peers and superiors.
“(The recognition) means a great deal to me. I’m just so thankful … at all the stations I’ve worked at, I’ve enjoyed working with everybody, and I hope they’ve enjoyed working with me,” he says.
He has some simple advice for paramedics at the other end of the spectrum just starting their career: “Do it to the best of your ability and mostly, enjoy it, because it’s such a good job.”