St John a friend in deed

St John ambulance officers are often the first at the scene of a tragedy. Hamish McNeilly went out on a Friday night shift with the paramedics in Dunedin last week.

I sit in ambulance 878, waiting to be sent on a job at a moment's notice.

The bright yellow and green Mercedes ambulance was donated to St John less than a year ago, and I notice it is surprisingly roomy inside as I chat to ambulance officers Pat Bain and Debby Foster.

The experienced pair are reaching the end of their 7am-7pm shift, and they yarn about their job while showing the vast amount of life-saving equipment they use.

''The thing about this job is every day is totally different,'' Mr Bain said.

''A job can go well one day and then pear-shaped the next ... and we are getting busier and busier.''

Each 111 call goes to the ambulance communication centre in Christchurch, with the call-taker determining whether it is an urgent or non-urgent job.

Particularly for priority one patients - the most urgent calls - ''every minute is crucial'', Mr Bain said.

''In this job, you are going to their place when the s... has hit the fan, and sometimes you can make it better.''

Accident callouts by the ambulance are funded by ACC, with medical calls partly funded by the Government and a component paid for by the patient - about $88 - the same flat rate regardless of where the patient lives.

Both ambulance officers noted the increased demand for their services by the elderly, many of whom would ''sit on'' their medical concerns rather than make a fuss.

Many of the jobs they attended were heart-breaking, the pair said.

''We see some very sad cases of little old ladies who have got up in the middle of the night to go to the toilet and fallen over and fractured their hip and remained there till 10am the next day,'' Mr Bain said.

It was important family, friends and neighbours kept a regular eye on elderly residents, and personal medical alarms - available from St John - were recommended.

''The more people wear alarms, the better off they will be,'' he said.

Ms Foster said earlier that day she had helped a man in his 90s and had asked him: ''What do you like to be called?''

''Darling,'' he quipped, ''but that hasn't happened for a while.''

This month, Ms Foster, on her birthday no less, helped an 8-year-old with a squashed toe, who told her, ''You are very lucky to have saved my life on your birthday.''

Suddenly, a call comes over the radio: a woman who recently gave birth is showing signs of a stroke. It's a priority call and so the lights and sirens are activated.

Is is an unnerving experience travelling at high speed in a high-sided vehicle, especially when you approach an intersection, and you soon appreciate the skill of emergency services staff as they navigate small streets and negotiate the odd wayward driver.

Within minutes, we are inside a home, where the ambulance officers quickly attend to the medical needs of the visibly upset patient, while making sure they explain to the patient and her partner what is happening.

She is transported to hospital, the cause of her distress being a possible reaction to her medication, and this information is relayed to staff at the emergency department.

Mr Bain said the family did the right thing by ringing 111.

''If anyone is concerned, we don't mind coming out. It is the old story: when your house is on fire you don't put it out with a garden hose ... you call the professionals.''

Often, St John officers are the first at the scene of serious assaults and even homicides, and ''somewhere deep down in my mind it probably affects you, but I have managed to block it out'', Mr Bain said.

Andrew Duncan and John Baker begin their shift and they quickly restock the ambulance with supplies.

Soon the radio crackles again and the officers are called to a man experiencing shortness of breath and chest pains.

As we wind our way through the narrow roads towards his retirement village unit, a priority call comes over - ''Four-year-old unconscious, not breathing'' - and we are off in a different direction, and a Mosgiel unit is called to cover the retirement home job.

Our patient is sitting up in bed smiling when we arrive. Crisis averted. However, he is taken in the ambulance, along with his mother, to Dunedin Hospital as a precaution.

''He was a cool wee kid,'' Mr Baker, usually an ambulance station manager at Mosgiel, said. ''Hopefully, he will think back and remember that this was a positive experience.''

Both he and Mr Duncan said they had been volunteers with St John before moving into a paid position, a role which was varied and enabled them to contribute to their community.

It was a privilege to enter people's homes during a crisis and assist them and their families, they said.

Some jobs were heart-rending, particularly when a person died.

They talked of the increasing number of calls involving elderly patients, and also the busy Thursday/Friday/Saturday shifts, when some people tended to drink and get into trouble.

But talk is cut short when they are called to the grounds of Knox Church, where a 22-year-old student has been knocked out and has a possible head injury.

The man is conscious when we arrive, but very drunk. He says he has consumed half a bottle of vodka.

Vomit stains his shoes and the footpath nearby. He has wet his pants and is propped up by Campus Watch staff.

A friend, who is looking after him, says the pair walked several hundred metres from his flat to the church grounds.

And the drunk student is not budging.

He is helped to the ambulance and driven the short distance to his flat, where he is escorted up the steps to his room to sleep off the effects of the alcohol.

''It was good he had mates who were looking after him,'' Mr Baker said.

And we should say the same about our ambulance officers - it's good we've got them to look after us.

- hamish.mcneilly@odt.co.nz

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