Organisation: Tasmanian Ambulance Service
Christine has spent all of her life on Tasmania’s rugged West Coast, both in the inland mining town of Rosebery and the coastal and tourism village of Strahan. Fifteen years ago, about the time her two sons were reaching adulthood, she saw a flyer asking for volunteers to staff the ambulance based in Strahan. Joined by her sister, Christine travelled 150km a time (at her own expense) for training over two weekends. There was a four month break before the official exam, the prospect of which ‘scared me to death’. ‘I left school at 15, and when you sit an exam after so many years of not doing anything like that, it’s a big jump. But just the thought that the community needed me, and that I could be there for people helped me overcome my fears.’
For a woman who used to pass out at the sight of needles, Christine thinks she has come a long way: ‘I have drawn up drugs for nurses and paramedics, and I can even hold someone’s arm while the deed is done’. In the early days training was held weekly – ‘it was all very new and we were eager to learn’ – but for the last ten years or so the Strahan unit has trained every second Tuesday. Rumour has it that visiting Paramedics are very keen to come to Strahan training because of the likelihood that Christine will bring a freshly smoked salmon for supper (we’re a fishing village, after all). Training is considered crucial to the Strahan volunteers, as it helps maintain high level ambulance skills, as well as cement the teamwork which is so important to ambulance work. Christine particularly values the opportunity to ‘debrief’ cases: “Although the Tasmanian Ambulance Service has an official system of Clinical Incident Stress Management, we find that talking to our colleagues is the best way of recovering from the stresses we encounter in this type of volunteering.”
Most people think of ambulance officers in the blood, guts and gore of large car accidents, but in small communities the stresses and difficulties of ambulance work often arise from knowing the patients. But this can also be one of the best things: ‘It can be a real privilege to provide help to one of our older citizens, who have themselves given a lifetime of service to their community. Because there is a close and accessible ambulance, old people with chronic illnesses are able to stay in their homes and around their families, rather than spending their last days in a hospital or nursing home.’ Not all ambulance cases are dramatic: ‘There have been many times when we have quietly come to someone’s home – even helping them pack their bag – and then driven them gently off to hospital, chatting all the way about recipes and grandchildren. This is ‘life-saving’ in another way – it’s giving people dignity and respect.’
Christine says teamwork is the most important aspect: ‘If you haven’t got teamwork, you really have nothing. Our volunteer crew are all of different backgrounds and interests, but we all get on well and are determined to support one another. And it’s a big circle, with our local ambulance volunteers, the salaried paramedic based in the nearby town, and the nurses in the Strahan clinic. We all rely on one another.’ For Strahan ambulance volunteers, one of the greatest difficulties is the duration of cases: a ‘short’ job lasts an hour or more; average case duration is over three hours, and there have been instances when Christine was called from bed at 7.00am, and finally made it home for ‘breakfast’ at 8.00pm – 13 hours on the trot! There is also a surprising amount of waiting around – for retrieval aircraft or rendezvous with road crew, for families to arrive to see the patient before we take them away, or simply while anonymous people in the hospitals and head offices decide where a patient will go and how they will be retrieved. At times like this, the Strahan team has clear but unspoken roles: Mark and Phillip help do the clinical management, Dianne writes the reports, and Christine keeps everyone supplied with cuppas.
After 15 years of solid service, Christine has no plans to stop volunteering. ‘I’ll keep doing this until I physically can’t do it any more.’