Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Unusual Jobs

I was fortunate enough not to attend any cot deaths in my ten years with the emergency services. These were always heart-breaking jobs for staff to attend, particularly if they were parents themselves. Equally as bad were cases of child abuse and I was also thankfully spared from exposure to these.

Even more rare and just as undesirable were victims of foul play. Although homicides were uncommon I did attend a couple in my ten plus years of service. One particularly gruesome job involved a murder homicide.

I was working on one of the Metropolitan Life Support Uunits (LSU's) and we were called to a private residence to inspect the deceased bodies of an elderly woman and her middle- aged daughter.

The Police had already secured the scene, so there was no danger of the offender still being a threat. After confirming that the two victims were definitely deceased we left the scene in the hands of the forensics team to investigate.

It eventuated that the daughter, who was a psychiatric patient on home leave, for some unknown reason had suddenly attacked her mother with a kitchen knife stabbing her to death before committing suicide herself.

The crime scene resembled a war zone with blood everywhere but other than confirming they were dead there was nothing left for us to do.

The other bizarre case was in a country village where two men were having an argument while at home preparing dinner. One of them was cooking his meal at the stove and in a fit of rage he apparently lashed out at the other with his small steak knife. The chest wound he inflicted, although small, must have lacerated the unfortunate victims heart and was immediately fatal. Once again there was little we could do but wait for the police.

On the lighter side, a completely non- fatal and rather humorous case came early on in my career.

I was sent to uplift a patient from one hospital to be transferred to another that specialised in plastic surgery. I arrived in the ER and located a staff nurse who directed me to the patient.

She pulled back the curtain of the patient cubicle and introduced the pleasant male patient to me and then handed me his notes. Normally they also give a quick handover of what was wrong with the patient, but since she did not do this I diplomatically asked her what his complaint was as I was single crewed.

The nurse hesitated, looked at me and said “just pop out here for a moment”. A grin came over her face and she whispered that he had a vibrator stuck up his rectum and was going to the other hospital to have it removed. I didn’t talk much to him en route but I did notice that he smiled the whole journey.

Another very different job I attended involved some completely unconventional transport methods.

It was a random Sunday morning that I was responded down to the Police launch UDC Alert at Mechanics Bay on the waterfront.

The forty- two-foot launch was the boat being used by the Police while their new Deodar II was being built. We were to be taken to one of the less inhabitated Islands in the Hauraki Gulf where a middle aged female had injured her back.

On arrival at the dock a relative of the patient driving a tractor, which was towing a trailer, met us. This was our transport up to the house.

I gathered what I thought would be the necessary gear – Entonox, MKII stretcher and the first response kit. Soon we were trundling off along the bumpy dirt road up to where the poor lady lived.

She was in excruciating pain. It appeared she had a herniating disc in her lumbar spine. Anyone reading this who has suffered a similar injury will be able to comprehend the agony she was in.

We managed to carefully manoevure her onto a stretcher while I administered some entonox (Nitrous Oxide) an analgesic gas, which worked wonders to reduce her pain.

That was just as well because our ride back down to the wharf was on a mattress in the same trailer towed by the tractor over the same bumpy farm road.

We eventually got her back on the boat and transported her back to the wharf on the mainland, then into the ambulance. Our destination hospital was still a 30 min journey but she had already sucked her way through three cylinders of entonox. I had to go via the central ambulance station to pick up a spare cylinder of Entonox. The whole job took over three hours.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Practical Jokes

As ambos we were always trying to look at the funny side of life and often played practical jokes on each other. In some ways this was a great way to release the tension and stress that is associated with the job.

A humorous event occurred one night shift when one of the rebellious ambos at the Pitt St ambulance station thought it would be a laugh if they drove up the notorious Karangahape road and picked up a prostitute. The idea was to bring her back to the station to surprise the station officer whose birthday it was.

The trick backfired however when the girl they chose turned out to be an undercover Police officer! She didn’t see the funny side and reported them to the Ambulance management! They received some stern counselling but were let off without too much fuss.

When I first joined the service it became a running joke to pull all the linen out of the cupboards of another PTO’s vehicle while they were in the hospital picking up a patient. They would arrive back in the ambulance bay with their patient only to be greeted by an ambulance messily strewn with linen. The trouble was they always retaliated.

Another joke was to switch off the electrical isolation switch under the drivers seat and turn on everything such as lights, siren, wipers, heater etc. When the unsuspecting driver turned the isolation switch back on he got a mighty and noisy surprise. Needless to say this trick only worked once on the new staff.

Sometimes we would have a 50ml syringe full of water beside the driver’s door. The ambulances at the hospital ambulance loding bay were all parked parallel to each other, so as you were pulling out you would wind down your window and motion for the ambo in the vehicle next to you to wind theirs down because you wanted to speak with them. Instead of conversation though he would get 50mls of water squirted at him/her before the offenders co-worker made a fast getaway.

Another prank that backfired happened before I joined. There was a certain female ambulance officer that was well renown for using very colourful (sic) language while working with the male ambos.

As the ledgend goes, someone decided it would be an entertaining thing to tape the transmit button down on her portable radio, a device which wass located behind the drivers seat of every ambulance. Not only did this jam the channel open so no one could talk over it, but for the next hour the control room and everyone else heard in graphic details exactly what she really thought of them!

On one of my last shifts at one of the Metropolitan stations, I arrived about twenty- five minutes before my shift started and jumped into the shower to freshen up. When I stepped out of the bathroom my uniform and clothes were missing!! The buggers I was working with had hidden them.

Next thing the station alarm went off and they were calling out my vehicle for a priority one job! I suspected skulduggery and sure enough one of the other on-duty ambo’s had hidden my clothes and rang up the control room telling them to give me a fake job to make me panic. Admittedly they had me going for just a minute!

With over 200 staff working in the job, there were bound to be personality clashes amongst the crews. I knew of particular staff members, who if they were rostered on with certain people, they would simply call in sick so they didnt have to put up with them.

One ambo that ended up having some psyche problems and was eventually dismissed, was boycotted by everyone at his station and had to be moved to another station so people would work with him.

I only ever had an altercation with one other ambo in my career. I was fairly religious at the time and this chap had comparatively loose morals. I was speaking to one of the female control room operators whom I didn’t realise was actually going out with him at the time and in my ignorance I told her what I thought of his immoral stance, which she duly passed onto him.

Next time I saw him he naturally hassled me about this comment and generally gave me a really hard time. I figured that if I was ever to work with him in the future, which was highly likely, I had to be at least on speaking terms, so I simply, genuinely apologised for what I had said and he never mentioned it again. In fact I got on quite well with him after that.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Celebrity vistor

During my role as a PTS officer I often transferred cancer patients to the Oncology department for treatment. This was sometimes very disillusioning, particularly with seriously ridden terminal patients who were usually coherent and appeared normal on the first visit but would be lethargic, bald and drowsy by the third or fourth time we picked them up.

Often they ended up dying anyway despite the radio or chemotherapy. I felt sometimes that it was almost just a cruel treatment that was doomed to failure. To me it appeared to be a last ditch effort attempt which gave them false hope only to end up making them worse and killing them anyway.

I clearly remember the first ever terminally ill cancer patient I ever transported. It was back in my PTS days and I was still fairly new to the job. Fresh out of training I had been taught all these life saving skills but they forgot to tell me what to do with a terminally ill patient if they should die while being transported.

I was single crewed and so I loaded the patient feet first into the ambulance so I could keep a close eye on her while I was driving. She was being transported from her house to the St Josephs hospice at the Mercy hospital, presumably to die a peaceful and dignified death. Her adult children, who were visibly upset, accompanied her in the back of the ambulance. This was fine but they were hugging her all the way to hospital, which made it difficult for me to monitor her in the rear vision mirror.

It also presented a huge moral dilemma for me while I drove. She was clearly near death but what was I supposed to do if she stopped breathing en route?

With her children by her side I felt it would have been unethical for me not to carry out a resuscitation attempt but on the other hand I thought it would sound stupid calling backup to help resuscitate a clearly terminally ill patient.

Fortunately she stayed alive for the whole journey and a difficult decision was avoided. I sought council from my station officer afterwards to clarify what the correct procedure was.

As it turned out I was faced with similar scenarios many times again and I discovered the correct thing to do is simply to consult with the family at the time and provide conservative treatment until you either arrive at your destination or the family accepts that the inevitable has occurred. Death, while socially undesirable, becomes a stark reality in the world of medicine and our job was to make it as dignified as possible.

I also transported many dialysis patients in my first few years with the ambulance service.

These poor individuals suffered from kidney failure and would spend five or more hours being hooked up to a machine three or more times a week to detoxify their blood.

Some of the really chronic patients were amputees as well, a result of further complications from the condition. It always astounded me that such large machinery was required to replace the job of our relatively small kidneys that we have. I could also never really understand how the dialysis process worked and certainly never anticipated that one day I would be selling such equipment as I do today.

One thing was for sure though, working in the health industry sure made you appreciate and value your own health.

Another relatively common complaint I was called to was hypoglycaemic Type I diabetics. These patients were dependent on insulin injections to regulate their blood sugar levels and most commonly would not eat enough sugary food after injecting themselves.

One regular customer of ours was a young male diabetic who drove for a pavalova delivery company. I attended to him several times and in each scenario he would have a hypoglycaemic attack while driving his van load of pavalovas. Fortunately he had the foresight to pull over to the curb and stop before he became semi conscious but I could never understand why he didn’t just reach back and help himself to some pavalova. It probably would have fixed him every time!

There were a couple of older diabetics I attended who became extremely aggressive when they became hypoglycaemic. The brain like other organs needs sugar to function correctly. With hypoglycaemia, or low blood sugar, the brain doesn’t get enough glucose and so the patient becomes confused, irritable, drowsy and eventually unconscious.

If the patient is still conscious enough our first treatment was to give them some syrupy glucose to drink. Failing that we would inject them with a glucose solution into their vein or inject them with Glycogen shot intramuscularly which mobilised any sugar stored in the liver. Within ten or fifteen minutes they would return to normal and most of the time we would leave them in the care of relatives.

Other common medical complaints included heart attacks, chest pain, renal colic, abdominal pain, dehydration through vomiting and diahorrea and various breathing difficulties including asthma, hyperventilation and chronic obstructive airways disease (COAD).

As an Ambo we got to meet some important and famous New Zealanders but I would never have expected to have Michael Jackson walk into my ambulance.

I was working with another Ambo by the name of Claire and we were at the famous singers Auckland concert. We had our ambulance parked right near the stage and which gave us a fantastic view of the concert. In between dealing with minor patient complaints we enjoyed the music and show.

At the end of his routine the famous performer got into his Limo and started driving out of the concert. Suddenly the Limo stopped and he got out and walked along the road waving to his crazed fans. His path took him past the ambulance and suddenly he just walked inside!

Claire sat there speechless but I thought I cant get this close to him and not say something so I said welcome to our ambulance and shook his hand.

He was very friendly and chatted briefly to me before leaving and getting back to his Limo.

When he had left and the concert was finally finished we ended up transporting a young teenage female that was supposedly overcome by emotion. She admitted to me with great awe that Michael Jackson had looked straight at her during the concert and it had taken her breath away. I replied, “so what…he walked into our ambulance and I shook his hand!”

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Sickness is a great leveller and affects the wealthy and poor alike. Consequently I got to meet some very interesting people during my time as an ambo.

Many of our patients were not so acutely ill and were therefore open to conversation during the trip to hospital.

This was especially true for many of the routine patients who were often just going back to a clinic for the day for some rehabilitation or an x-ray or similar outpatient procedure.

It was a fantastic opportunity to hone my communication skills by chatting to them, putting them at ease and helping pass the time during the trip. I found it particularly easy asking them questions as I have a natural and inquisitive personality and a genuine interest in what other people have done in their lives.

An interesting male patient I once transported to the head injury clinic told me about a unfortunate but humorous event that led him to rehab. He was a truck driver who had received a head injury when he rolled his truck twelve months previous.

He was hospitalised, treated and discharged but said that certain strange things started manifesting themselves some time after he was discharged from hospital.

According to his account he had trouble judging distances whilst driving his car and often braked too late when approaching intersections, which meant he ended up halfway through the intersection before stopping. The crunch (sic) came however one weekend when he was at home working on his racing car. He and his wife both owned and raced hot rod vehicles.

He told me that this particular day he was sitting in the drivers’ seat of his hot rod, in its garage and was revving and tuning the motor when he suddenly started hallucinating. The mirage was so real he swore he was actually at the drag strip and could even see the crowds, other vehicles and himself at the start line ready to race.

Revving his motor, the start lights turn red, then orange, then green so he put his foot down and drove out the end of his garage! That’s when he came back to reality and realised that maybe he wasn’t fully cured afterall.

I was taking him into the concussion clinic, which was a rehab day clinic for head injury patients.

Illness has no respect of ethnicities either and with my City having the largest Polynesian content outside the Pacific Islands we were often called to some of their homes in the Southern Suburbs for various medical problems, often involving respiratory complaints.

It was not uncommon to see the parents, grandparents and children of a Polynesian family all living in a two or three bedroom house. I recall attending one such residence in the early hours of a morning and having to carefully step over three children who were fast asleep on mattresses on the lounge floor. This was their bedroom at nighttime.

Their walls were often adorned with holy pictures surrounded by the familiar flower-bound leis. Most European families place their elderly parents in rest homes but I found Pacific Island people always gave them the best room in their own house. They were also always extremely grateful for our help and always polite and co-operative as patients.

I found that the cultural differences did however sometimes hinder our treatment of patients from this culture.

In my experience Pacific Island people have a set hierarchical structure, which demanded respect for people with authority such as ambulance officers. They would tend to nod or agree with everything you said even if they didn’t quite understand what you were asking.

One example was when I transported an elderly Samoan patient who was accompanied by a younger female relative. The older man spoke little English so the relative did the translating for me. I wanted to know if the treatment was working so I asked the relative to ask the patient if the oxygen we had administered was helping with his breathing, which she duly did in their native language.

I sat there waiting for the answer but she said nothing. So I proceeded to ask her “well what did he say” to which she replied, “yes it was helping”. Then I suddenly realised that she had taken what I said literally. I had only asked her to enquire about our treatment, which she did but I failed to ask her to then tell me the answer!

Another culturally related issue I encountered with Pacific Island patients was that when they were feeling ill sometimes they would just lie down and close their eyes. This gave the impression that they had collapsed and some well-meaning person would call an ambulance.

The solution was always the same and it was simply to get all the concerned relatives to leave the room so it was just the patient and ourselves left. We would then explain in a reassuring manner that they were now alone and often the patient would open their eyes and start talking to us.

It was as if they just wanted to block out everything that was happening around them and this was their way of coping.

Another different cultural practice I encountered was with some Asian races. I went to a few jobs where the patient had collapsed and the concerned and well-intentioned relatives were propping the patient up and rubbing them all over their body with their hands. The trouble was in these instances both these patients had low blood pressure, which is why they collapsed in the first place and appeared so pale and sweaty. Sitting them up was the worse thing to do and it took some convincing to get them to leave the poor patient alone so we could lie them down.

Cultural differences caused communication problems at the hospital as well. A friend who worked in the emergency department told me about a female Somalian patient that was bought in by her husband and was actually quite sick. I think she had some vaginal bleeding and so needed urgent medical attention. Now I’m not sure whether it was a religious or cultural thing but her husband didn’t want anyone inspecting or talking to his wife and so he answered any questions that were directed to her.

He became quite obstructive towards the medical staff, particularly when the patient was taken to the resus room and the male doctors were involved in her treatment. Apparently the hospital had to get the security officers to remove him from the room because in his belief only he was allowed to answer for her or examine her.

Medicine also has its societal taboos and I remember transporting the first “AIDS” patient I had ever seen.

The more politically correct terminology these days is HIV positive but back then societies understanding and acceptance of this virus was limited and there was still a lot of paranoia surrounding the controversial disease.

I had had little training about it and was basically told that it was much less infective than other more common nasties like Hepatitis, but like the rest of society I was still relatively uneducated and probably over cautious.

I picked the patient up from Auckland hospital ambulance bay and was transferring him to the Mercy hospital hospice unit. The patient was bought down from the ward and appeared very pale, gaunt and anorexic. The poor chap looked terrible and had sores on his mouth and face and was coughing frequently. Initially I had no idea what his medical problem was and had only been told he was a medical transfer.

A relative was with him. Suspecting that he was an AIDS patient, I quickly scanned the notes and asked the female relative if the patient was HIV positive. She became very defensive and asked me why I wanted to know. I explained diplomatically that since the patient was coughing I was concerned at the risk of contamination. She reluctantly admitted that he was, so in my naivety I asked him if it was ok and placed a surgeons mask on his face for the short trip. He really didn’t seem to care and it gave me peace of mind so it worked well.

Our ambulances carried Personal protection packs for jobs involving gross contamination. The kit contained paper overalls, a plastic apron, gloves and mask with a face shield. I only ever used this once. The job was an arranged admission to hospital and the patient an elderly bed-ridden man suffering dehydration.

On arrival at the premises, his slightly demented wife who was still wearing her nightie, even though it was the afternoon, greeted my work partner and me. The patient had been suffering from diahorrea for the last three days and there was ample evidence of it throughout the one bedroom unit. A urinal was full of the liquid waste and there were stains on her nightie, all over the patients’ pyjamas and all over their sheets. Needless to say the smell was slightly overwhelming!

They were a very friendly couple though and didn’t seem to mind that we were all geared up in our white sterile looking overalls and gloves. I wrapped him in a blanket and we popped him off to hospital.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Importance of Equipment Checks

Although the Auckland service is the busiest in the country, there were always quiet periods where the more mundane, routine, but required tasks, had to be carried out.

The first in the list of chores was to check the vehicle and all of its equipment off at the beginning of a shift. In theory, this involved carrying out a detailed inspection of all of the vehicles inventory against a check-list of what was supposed to be there.

Every single item was supposed to be counted to ensure minimum numbers of the items were present according to the list. Most consumable items were stored in plastic containers in the long cupboards above the stretchers. One container might have four different sizes of bandages, another dressings, oxygen masks, tubes etc.

There were also the jump kits which contained most of the important gear that would be taken to the patient. These would hold drugs, bandages, dressings, oxygen, masks, IV gear etc.

Each drug in these would have to be counted and the expiry date checked. The oxygen and entonox gas levels in the kits and vehicle were inspected, recorded and replaced if required.

The other equipment including the stretchers, splints, linen and ECG defibrillator / monitor (defib for short) was checked and tested.

Even the vehicle itself was examined. The brake lights, indicators and head and taillights were checked. The beacons, siren and horn were also tested, as was the oil and water levels.

I always made sure the vehicle was ready to go and that I had enough pillows and linen, particularly on a cold day or night. Pillows make great splints so it was important that I had at least three.

In reality, when it came to checking the vehicle off most staff got to know what was supposed to be in the vehicle and a quick once over of the items was usually the standard approach.

As the reader can imagine the routine can be boringly repetitive after doing the same thing every shift, every day, every year. Consequently some staff became very complacent and a few didn’t even bother carrying it out much at all. This of course was potential for disaster.

There was once just such a lax crew who started their shift at one of the quieter stations and asked the previous crew if everything was in place to which they replied it was. The new crew took the previous crews word that everything was accounted for and obviously didn’t bother to do a check themselves. The trouble was that the previous crew also hadn’t checked the vehicle off properly at the start of their shift and didn’t do any jobs that would have required them to re-stock any items.

Unfortunately the new crews first job was being responded to a cardiac arrest and on arrival a shocked and panicky crew discovered there were no batteries in the defibrillator! They had been removed for charging and not been replaced and the crew had not checked the equipment. They had to call for another ambulance to back them up so the patient could be defibrillated.

Needless to say such an action was extremely negligent and so they were counselled by the manager of the day. Thanks to backup from the union both crews were very lucky not to lose their jobs.

When the service had the Bedford and Chevrolet ambulances it was routine to remove the stretchers and mop the floor out at the end of each shift. The stretchers were often left out of the vehicle during the crew changeover so the floor could dry sufficiently.

This lead to an embarrassing moment for one poor crew who got called to an urgent job as soon as they arrived for work. The back doors were already closed so they jumped in and raced off to the motor vehicle accident they had been responded to.

Imagine their shock when they opened the back doors to get the stretcher out only to find there were none! A sheepish crew had to call for a backup vehicle to transport the patient and return to station to retrieve their stretchers.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Keeping Fit

A large part of our work involved taking patients to the many daily clinics at the hospital. Auckland hospital decided they could get better value for money than utilising ambulances for this workload and the contract for these services was awarded to a taxi company!

We suddenly found ourselves extremely short of work. For a few weeks we were all parked in the ambulance bay at the major city hospital waiting around for jobs. The management decided there was simply not enough work left to continue the Patient Transport Service, which was abandoned, and we were thankfully integrated into the mainstream service.

Being part of the emergency side of the service was more much exciting and challenging.

The other Ambulance Officers I worked with came from every walk of life. Some had been medics in the armed services, some were nurses but most had no medical backgrounds at all. There were tradesman, a lawyer, a few from the Police force and people from just about every other job out there.

The uniqueness of the job and type of work formed a very strong comradre amongst the staff and the senior staff were generally very well respected by the junior staff.

When I first joined the service it still had a military feel about it. Senior Operation Officers were addressed as ‘Sir’ or ‘Mam’. Staff were expected to be well groomed with polished shoes and vehicles were expected to be kept clean, tidy and well presented at all times.

There were even regulations on what linen was to be laid on the stretcher. The ‘corporate linen,’ as it was referred to, consisted of two neatly folded blankets, a folded draw sheet, a towel and a pillow, tidily arranged on each stretcher in a set pattern.

It was forbidden to drive with your elbow partially leaning out the window and at one stage we even received a directive not to use please or thank you during our radio telephone conversations.

Each station had four ranked staff. There were three station officers and one senior station officer who was responsible for the overall running of the staff and station. They were mostly advanced paramedics and well respected since they were also responsible for handing out discipline.

As time went on these regulations softened and it became a more relaxed place to work although I felt some of the professional image was lost in this transition.

When I first started with the service there were almost two hundred ambulance officers scattered throughout the eight metropolitan and five rural stations.

As a new staff member, particularly as a male one, it took some time before you got to know many of the staff. Even just being with them on station did not guarantee that you got to know them. It wasn’t until you actually worked with them as a pair that you got to know who they were, their background, past work history and they got to know you and yours.

For many of the older staff, especially, you had to earn their respect and almost prove yourself before they would warm to you.

I was fortunate that I managed to fast-track this process by playing for the Auckland Ambulance Rugby team thanks to the organiser and captain Boycee.

We only ever played about five games a year but thanks to Tony and some corporate sponsorship we had our own rugby jerseys and played on the little used rugby grounds at the Ford motor company in Manukau.

Our opposition teams were usually from the Fire Service, Ministry of Transport, Police, Referees association and even other Ambulance services.

The games were a lot of fun but also quite competitive. There was always some friendly badgering between the teams and even the typical punch-ups that seemed innate with the sport.

One time when we were playing a neighbouring ambulance service in Auckland, the referee walked off the game because he said it was too rough for a so called friendly game.

Since the players in our team were from all the different stations I got to know and respect a lot of the older ambulance staff and found a strong comradre amongst them. This of course also translated into the job.

Although I hadn’t been particularly sporty in my earlier years I now really enoyed team sports and while working for the service I also played in the touch rugby team and arranged a basketball team and indoor volleyball team as well. The trouble was trying to get regular players amongst shift workers but it was still fun nevertheless.

One year I also ran with an ambulance team in the Keri Keri half marathon and in the Around Lake Taupo relay run.

These were both fantastic events as we were allowed to take an ambulance PTS van as transport and had an ambulance social club t-shirt as part of the team. They also helped to build comradre as well as keep us fit.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Run Over by an Incubator!

Our work as PTO’s was quite varied and involved transferring patients either to or from hospital or between hospitals. Some patients were post stroke victims and were wheel chair bound. It wasn’t easy loading these patients into the ambulance by ourselves but we managed most of the time. You become quite resourceful and our portable wheelchair got a lot of use!

Sometimes there would be two stretcher patients and a transit care nurse. Other times we would take a vanload of mobile and semi-mobile patients. Occasionally we would take patients to other provincial cities 1-3 hours drive away. I once even drove a patient all the way to Whakatane which was a 10.5 hours round trip.

Other jobs involved taking sick babies in incubators to the airport. This was always hard work as the incubators weighed a ton but we got to drive directly onto the tarmac beside the plane so due to my fascination with airplanes I never minded.

One time I was injured by an incubator that I had to transport from one hospital to another. I was walking in front pulling the heavy incubator with a staff nurse pushing it from behind as we travelled along the corridor of one of the main hospitals.

As we approached a corner she missed the cue and didnt slow down. Unfortunately I did and the bottom chassis rail of the incubator caught my heel as I walked in front of it. The entire weight of the incubator rode up on my heel carving a deep chunk out of it.

It hurt like hell at the time but I carried on with the job and transported the patient and escort to the next hospital.

After unloading the patient I checked my heel and found it a bloody mess. My sock was sodden with blood and a nice haematoma had formed around the chunk of lifted skin.

I ended up going to the ER where a sympathetic nurse dressed and bandaged it. I was the first (and probably only) ambulance officer ever to be run over by an incubator! It was kinda embarressing so I just carried on for the rest of the day and didnt mention it to anyone.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

First Priority one job

My first PTS job was to pick up a patient from the Artificial Limb Centre (ALC) in Mt Eden. We received the job over the RT from a dispatcher by the name of Ray.

Ray had served many years with the ambulance service and was a real legend amongst the troops. He was once awarded a medal for bravery when he risked his life to get to a shot policeman during an armed offender callout. That was in the days before there was a Police SWAT team . He had seen it all and had the foresight to finish his time off in the service sitting in a cushy chair in the control room.

This old timer still had an extremely sharp mind and knew where all the ambulances were at any one time without having to use the computer. Not an easy task when you are juggling forty or more vehicles all over city.

Our induction training didnt include being shown where any of the clinical departments were located around the city, so when we got the job we had to search through the map books and then a phone book to find our way there. We didnt want to sound ignorant over the radio asking for directions or the clinic location and he certainly wasnt offering any. Eventually we got there and completed the transfer.

As New Zealand largest, Auckland City can be very daunting to most people visiting or even living there, yet we were expected to just know our way around all of it. It was a sharp learning curve for new recruits, especially for people like myself who had lived outside of Auckland. It wasnt uncommon for new staff to get completely lost or end up going the wrong way.

Our jobs were dispatched over the radio as either Code 1 (non urgent) or Code 2 (urgent) the later meaning you could respond under lights and siren. Code 2 jobs provided the high profile adrenaline rush we always hoped for but the majority of the work was code 1.

Navigating your way through city traffic and going against red traffic lights was dangerous stuff but also a lot of fun. I clearly remember my first ever Code two job.

I was at the old Pitt St ambulance station having my lunch break. By now I was single crewed and the other vehicles were all out on jobs. Suddenly the station alarm sounded indicating there was a code two job. I was confused at first, as I was the only vehicle on station and thought the job couldn’t possibly be for me, a PTS vehicle. I answered the beeping radio-telephone (RT) in my vehicle (which indicated the control room had paged me) and was given the job over the air.

"A-11 your time out is 1228, code 2 to an R3 (aircraft crash alert) at Auckland International Airport, George Bolt Drive Drive, Mangere, job number 56"

I was one of a number of vehicles to respond to an International flight that was landing with a problem. I was so excited about the job I let out a yelp of excitement and quickly looked up the best way to get there.

I knew I could go via the motorway and exit at Mt Wellington then go through Otahuhu and Mangere. I didn’t know if this was the quickest way but it was the only route I knew without having to refer to the map book so I figured it was the safest bet.

I started the vehicle up and selected drive on the automatic transmission. Headlights switched on full beam. Beacons on. Siren on. I accelerated the Bedford Ambulance out of the station and into the throng of Pitt street traffic.

My heart was racing as I manoeuvred the high profile vehicle through the stationery cars up Pitt St and left onto an even busier Karangahape Road, then onto the motorway. Siren whaling, air horn blaring, traffic pulling over. It was a mixture of elation and panic but I loved every moment.

In those days the traffic police department was separate from the regular Police force and run by the Ministry of Transport (M.O.T). As I exited the Motorway at Mt Wellington and approached Mangere Rd I was astounded to see a Traffic officer at each intersection holding up the traffic and waving me through. It made me feel awfully important. I never experienced this VIP treatment by the MOT during an R3 again so it was quite a novelty.

Turning into George Bolt Memorial drive I was suddenly called up by the control room. Apparently the plane had landed safely and I was to stand down and head for the Matai Rd station to complete my lunch break. Although not getting to the airport was a letdown I was still beaming from my first code 2 for the rest of the day.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Joining the ranks

At the end of my apprenticeship an advert appeared in the NZ Herald for Patient Transport Officers (PTO’s)with the Auckland Ambulance Service. This job involved driving a single crewed ambulance, picking up and delivering the non-urgent and routine clinic patients from their homes to hospitals or delivering patients between hospitals.

I applied for the position and was asked to attend an interview with the Personnel manager and a Senior Operations Officer (SOO). They asked the routine questions - why I wanted to join, what I had to offer, how would I deal with shift work etc. I bluffed my way through as best I could.

I also had to attend a medical examination with the GP who was associated with the service at the time. This was the most thorough examination I had ever had but I was fit so didnt worry about it.

I passed the thorough medical and to my overwhelming joy was successful in being one of the few ‘chosen ones’ that were taken from the hundreds of applicants.

After resigning from my position at NZ Steel I turned up for work on my first day which was to be a very exciting and challenging new career.

I can still clearly picture my first day at the Auckland training centre. We had already been issued our uniforms which consisted of six white shirts, two ties, one pair of epaulettes, one jersey, two pairs of trousers, one raincoat, one reflective jerkin, one pair of waterproof trousers and a pouch containing scissors, clamp and pupil torch. We also got given a personal first response kit in the form of a white metal toolbox, which was crammed full of first aid gear and was affectionately known as our 'buddie'.

Receiving all this brand new uniform and equipment was overwhelming because as a volunteer I had to beg or borrow used items to kit myself out properly. In comparison it felt like all my Christmas’s had come and once and I was buzzing on a high when I picked it all up.

It was a Monday morning and eleven recruits in their crisp new uniforms were sitting in the classroom elated to finally be paid to do a job of their dreams.

After our training officer Rob had introduced himself, we took turns at explaining who we were and where we had come from. There were nine of us employed as PTO’s and three employed as Communication officers for the Regional Communications centre (RCC).

Our backgrounds were varied and included people from all walks of life including a Payroll clerk, Police officer, Navy medic, funeral director, Courier driver, Lab technician and of course myself as a sparky.

My trade as a Sparky appealed to Rob who happened to require some house wiring so I immediately started on a good footing and got to know and respect him early on in the job.

The induction lasted two weeks and was a combination of re-doing the Basic Ambulance Aid course, learning about the dreaded paperwork and administrative procedures, familiarising ourselves with the ambulance vehicles and stretchers, some defensive driving skills and some time in the control room. We also spent two days on an emergency ambulance vehicle riding 3rd person up.

Most of the administration information I was taught went in one ear and out the other. The medical content however was of great interest to me and for once in my life I excelled at what was being taught.

I earned a name for myself by being the one who asked all the questions over and over until I understood what was being taught. This was a new thing for me as in school I was always too shy to ask anything.

In this instance however, I decided that people’s lives may literally depend on what I learnt, so I had better understand everything in order to do the job properly. My perseverance paid off and was reflected in my high grades that I achieved in the exams we had to sit.

Finally, after graduating we were thrust out onto the street to different stations as new rookies. PTO’s were a new concept in the service but we were certainly welcomed by the existing full time staff. Our job would be to carry out the not-so-exciting, non-urgent work of ferrying around patients all over Auckland. This freed the other ambulances up to attend mainly urgent jobs, which often involved racing to scenes with lights and siren. In effect they would be doing more of this at our expense so in hindsight it was no wonder they were pleased to see us.

For some reason there was a delay in the processing of my ambulance ‘E’ drivers license which in those days was required to be able to drive an ambulance. For this reason I was double crewed with Gary, another recruit, during my first few days. This was actually quite advantageous to us as it meant we could load stretcher patients easier and had a lot more fun getting lost together.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Volunteer AO days

In my last year of my electrical training I had also become a volunteer ambulance officer (VAO) with the Auckland Ambulance service. Our official title was Honorary Assistant and we were the second crewmember on the ambulance, helping the full time Ambulance Officer (AO). It was an exciting and very different from the fire brigade.

We completed a one-week Elementary Ambulance Aid course, which included learning how to administer oxygen, entonox (laughing gas), apply the 'Hare' traction splints for fractured femurs and use the stretchers and other equipment as well as basic first aid (bandaging, slings etc).

We also learnt how to take a patients blood pressure and pulse and learnt about some of the common medical complaints and how to treat them. It was all a little daunting but I found it fascinating and therefore very enjoyable.

Once I had finished the course I was initially rostered on either a 7-3 or 3-11 shift at a South Auckland station during the week or weekends and then eventually worked the week-ends and on-call for the night shifts for the local rural town ambulance.

The work was varied and included attending car accidents, cardiac arrests, heart attacks, strokes and even a home birth. I really didn’t know what I was doing most of the time so I just ended up providing reassurance by talking to the patient and completing the dreaded paperwork.

Some of the full time staff were vehemently against volunteers whom they perceived as a form of cheap labour. Their argument was that using volunteers for free labour prevented the service from having to provide full time, permanent personnel for double crewing all the vehicles at all times.

This attitude was understandable to some degree, as they perceived it as a safety issue. Unfortunately a small minority of staff transmitted this attitude in their appalling behaviour towards the volunteer staff that they worked with.

Being on the receiving end was quite unpleasant and included being blatantly ignored in front of patients, being be-littled or having condescending remarks made in front of the public, being deliberately unhelpful and even being blatantly downright rude.

One particular officer I worked with considered me simply as an extra pair of hands to lift the end of the stretcher and that was it. He would snap at me in front of patients and therefore make me reluctant to ask for help or guidance. I would often think twice about turning up for duty if I was rostered on with him.

I remember attending a job with a one of these officers in my early days. The callout involved a collapsed female patient in the main street of town. The patient appeared intoxicated and after only momentarily examining her, the ambulance officer walked off to the lotto shop next to where the patient was, to buy a ticket cursing that the callout was a waste of time.

I was flabbergasted, as were the on-looking by-standers. Here an ambulanced had just turned out to a collapsed patient and one of the officers obviously couldnt give a damn! I was left standing there with this incoherent patient and really had no idea what I should do. I embarrassingly reassured the concerned public audience that it appeared that the patient was probably just drunk.

In another bizarre incident with a different officer, we were called to a motor-vehicle accident in a rural outback road in the early hours of a weekend morning.

A car containing some boy-racers had lost control and skidded into a ditch. On our arrival the occupants had managed to get out of the car but one patient had a small arterial laceration to his forehead above his left eye.

The other passengers were holding a tee shirt on it to try and stop the oozing blood flow.

Using some initiative I immediately grabbed the first response kit, which contained the dressings and bandages, but the grumpy AO snapped at me in front of everyone and ordered me to put it away. He then proceeded to fish in the open wound with a pair of non-sterile scissor clamps he was carrying and managed to clamp the small leacking artery.

He then bandaged the clamp in place. Although it obviously stopped the bleeding it was a procedure I had never seen carried out before or since. It was certainly not standard procedure.

Although these two particular gentlemen had many years of experience in the job and I’m sure had helped thousands of grateful patients, their attitudes towards their unpaid colleagues reflected that of someone burnt out from working in such a stressful environment for too long.

Thankfully both of these staff members did not remain too much longer in the ranks and they soon moved to a less stressful occupation.

Despite these minor setbacks it wasn’t long before I was hooked on the job and longed to be a full time ambulance officer.

As a volunteer, I often worked twenty or more hours a week on top of my normal job, so apart from the urge to be employed in a more exciting occupation I was exhausted by the end of each week.

Fate was to be on my side and I soon had my chance.

Friday, July 21, 2006


While in the drawing office, I got to work with a rather outspoken and radical young electrical engineer by the name of Graham (not his real name).

Graham was a bit of a socialist and took every opportunity to voice his left wing views about politics, the management or religion to anyone that gave him five minutes of their time. He was actually well educated and quite an intelligent man it obviously ran in his family as his father was a professor at a university.

On this particular day Graham had chosen a completely different topic to air his views about, one that was aimed personally at me!. He was giving me a hard time about my brother whom he accused of causing a motorvehicle accident that his friend had been involved in.

My brother had been doing some weed spraying for the District Council during his university holidays and was carrying out this out on a side road off the main approach road to the Steel Mill. There was a spray boom attached to the council truck he was driving, and he was spraying the edge of the road. He had posted signs around the road he was spraying on to warn motorists but came out onto the main road to turn around when the accident occurred.

The main road curves around a tight bend and the road that my brother was working on came off that road at the bend.

A friend of Grant, who worked as an electronics technician at the steel mill, was racing home in his sports car and came speeding around the corner when he was suddenly confronted with a council truck blocking half the road. Taking evasive action he swerved violently to avoid a collission. Unfortunately, his high speed maneuver resulted in the car rolling over and ending up in the ditch. Although he was fortunately uninjured the car was extensively damaged.

Graham and I ended up having a heated exchange of words as I defended my brother against his accusations that he had being negligent. Graham insisted that he should have provided adequate warning signs on the main road to prevent such an incident occuring in the first place.

Despite not actually having prior knowledge about the crash or having enough facts to determine my brothers innocence, Grahams persistant and passionate opinion that my brother was definately to blame made me angry and all the more determined to defend him.

After an hour of bantering from both sides and reaching a stalemate and with resentment running high between us it came to knockoff time and I was glad to see the back of him for the day.

I had always been taught not to part with someone on bad terms so despite my inner frustration I pushed it aside and wished him a "good night" and he replied “See you later”. However neither of us realised how tragically true that statement was to be.

That night the fire siren hailed me to a fire call-out which turned out to be a motorbike versus a milk tanker. Evidently the rider had turned too sharply into a road at speed, cutting in front of the tanker as it was approaching the intersection and the driver had no choice but to brake and brace for the inevitable impact.

It was too late for the bike rider who went under the truck and was dragged up the road. As his bike collided with the front of the unforgiving truck, he was catapulted head first into the front of the rig. His face obviously took the majority of the impact because when we saw the body, his head from the jaw upwards was missing. Brain matter and flesh were strewn up the road in a bloody trail as the driver bought the truck to a skidding halt.

Our job was primarily to wash the human remains off the road and being one of the crew members on the pump that attended, it was me that had to do it.

Being a small town we all wondered who the poor unidentified victim was and I was astounded to hear the result when the Police traced the motorbike to a surname that was the same as Grahams. The trouble was the owners first name was not Graham. Looking at the body however, I did begin to wonder.

The next day at work Graham didn’t turn up and my increased suspicions were sooned confirmed when the supervisor received the dreaded phone call. It had indeed been Graham, riding his father’s motorbike that had been killed last night.

An ashen and sullen supervisor announced the tragic news to the team and the office mood became rather sombre. He was even more shocked to learn that I had actually attended the accident and had to literally wash his brains off the road.

I never did go to his funeral and the office was never quite the same without his vocal outbursts but at least I had the peace of knowing that we had parted on his last day on good terms.

RIP Graham. This blogg is dedicated to you!

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Other side of the fence

When I left school I got an electrical apprenticeship at a nearby steelmill. It was great fun and well paid with plenty of overtime.

The mill had various plants where the steel was processed. The dirtiest and best paying area was the Iron Plant. Here Iron sand was melted down and transformed into pig iron. The plant was filthy with iron sand spread everywhere.

In my second year there I had an accident. I was walking back from the plant to the workshop and took a shortcut through the plant. I must have stood in a hole covered in iron sand. Although the sand was cold on top, underneath it was red hot.

The hot sand poured into my boots causing circumferential burns to my ankles. I raced over to a safety shower and whipped my boots off hosing them down with cool water. Another worker passing by went for help and a supervisor came and picked me up in the workshop utility vehicle and raced me off to the medical centre.

I walked into the medical centre and said to the nurse “you have a patient here with burns to his feet”. She replied ok well bring him in then. I replied “its me”!

With my feet in a basin of icy water the burning subsided but the skin was peeling off my ankles. An ambulance was called and I was ferried off to Middlemore hospital with my feet in plastic bags of the icy water and my hands and face covered in dust and dirt.

When we arrived at the hospital the ambulance officer told the nurses to take extra care of me because I was a Volunteer fireman, which somehow made it into the notes. I was seen promptly and my ankles bandaged with soothing SSD cream.

The next day the junior doctors came around for their daily patient rounds with the consultant. I felt like an exhibit instead of a patient as they read out my notes and pointed at my bandaged feet. I had to chuckle silently when the doctor read from the notes that I was a fireman and got burnt while attending a fire.
After several months off work and some painful hobbling around I returned to work and resumed light duties in the drawing office. With my feet still tender I was unable to wear the required steel cap boots so was confined to office work. Although boring, it did lead to another interesting episode!

Monday, July 17, 2006

BA operator

One of the first call-outs I attended as a qualification BA operator was to a house fire in the middle of the night. I made the first pump and we pulled up outside the apparently vacant house with smoke billowing out one of the windows.

We had donned the BA sets en route so we put our masks on outside in the fresh air and handed in our tallies to the pump operator.

Our first priority was to search the house to ensure no occupants were inside. I entered the house with BA on with another crewmember and we began our search.

We went room-by-room, looking behind doors, under beds and in closets in case the frightened victims became confused or scared and tried to shelter from the smoke. Thankfully the house was empty but it was exhilarating to carry out the job properly as I had been instructed.

An unusual job potentially requiring BA came on a Saturday morning on an orchard just on the outskirts of our town.

A young farm worker had been driving a tractor with a mower on the back cutting the grass between the orchard trees when disaster suddenly struck.

At one end of the orchard the rows of trees sloped down a small bank, which led into a pond. The worker had come out of one row of trees and turned sharply along the bank to go into the next row and got the shock of his life. The grass was wet and instead of driving into the next strip the tractor slid sideways into the pond trapping him half under the tractor.

We arrived soon after and scrambled into the pond with our BA on our backs in case we had to submerge to extract him. Fortunately he was able to hold his head above water, which prevented him from drowning.

Even luckier was the fact that the bottom of the pond was soft which cushioned the impact and prevented him from breaking any limbs. We were eventually able to pull him out safely to the waiting ambulance. Thankfully it was only his pride that was injured.

To become a certified driver and pump operator I also had to attend more courses. I had never driven a truck so the first step was obtaining a Heavy traffic, (HT) license. I was allowed to use the Fire Appliance to sit my HT license and soon had that credited to my name.

I booked into a weekend driving course at the Fire training school. There was an instructor and four volunteer fire fighters students. In the morning we had to drive an older manual Ford appliance around the city.

I was not only the youngest candidate at 18 but also clearly the least experienced. I had a few problems handling this old truck, particularly with handbrake starts, much to the crew’s amusement and the instructor’s frustrated instructions.

The afternoon involved driving an automatic International appliance. This was much easier except I had an embarrassing experience, which led to me failing the course. I had to brake suddenly and violently as I approached an intersection with a red traffic light, which was over a blind hill.

A car had stopped for a red light and I was fast approaching it. The wheels locked as I slid the machine slightly sideways with smoke issuing off the screaming tyres. The instructor gave me a filthy look and the other volunteers all chipped in their sarcastic comments, claps and laughter.

I suddenly realised that being eighteen didn’t mean I had the skill or ability to be driving these big beasts, especially at high speed. The instructor had a word with me at the end of the course and said not to bother coming back for the second day and to go get some more driving experience before returning.

Although I never went back for a drivers course I did end up attending a pump operators course and learnt how to regulate water flow, read what was happening at the end of the hose from the pressure guages, use the pump to suck water from wells, ponds or other water sources and generally how to operate the pump.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

BA Training

A key skill of a firefighter is being able to wear and operate Self Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) referred to as BA. This allowed firefighters to enter contaminated environments (smoke, gas etc)to carry out search and rescues.

To be able to become a BA operator meant attending a 4 day course (over 2 week-ends).

I applied for the course along with two other recruits. We did plenty of local training first though, including crawling through dark damp storm water drains wearing BA, which I hated as I was a little claustrophobic.

The course was at a permanant (perms) fire training centre. The instructors were very strict and there was some animosity towards us as volunteers. It was like being in a military camp - we had to line up and acknowledge our name as it was called out. We also were inspected to ensure our gear was clean and boots shiny. I took great pride in my gear and always ensured it was in top condition, even polishing my helmet.

The course consisted of some initial classroom teaching going over the theory involved in gas, oxygen etc. I loved it and caught on very quickly. Next came the practical part. We had to dress up in overalls and learn how to put the BA on and test it was working correctly. Wearing the BA we were paraded around the yard and made to run, jump, climb, do press ups and anything else that caused exertion and made us use up the full cylinder of air.

My friend and I had done a lot of physical training for this and so were very fit. I learnt how to conserve air even during exercise. This meant that whilst most candidates were down to their last gasps of air in a short space of time, we still had a quarter of a tank left.

This frustrated our instructors, as they wanted the recruits to suffer by having to literally suck out the last shreds of air from their tanks. They attempted to empty our tanks by pushing our facemask demand valves but eventually they gave up much to my delight and their disgust.

The next exercise of the day was to go through the specially constructed, double storied, concrete, smoke chamber wearing the breathing apparatus.

This building had a metal catwalk running through the two levels and had two metal door entrances on the lower level and two on the top. There were also several windows on the outside of the chamber and these were covered with moveable metal shutters. The chamber was fitted with a sprinkler system as well. Two large diesel gas burners fired heat and filthy black smoke into the building.

Our first tour through the notorious chamber was easy, as all of the chambers steel windows were open allowing daylight to help us navigate the way and there was no heat or smoke to contend with.

The course was a maze of moveable steel and wooden partitions which divided the chamber into a narrow pathway. Candidates followed a roped guideline in single file at timed intervals, which took them through a series of obstacles including narrow catwalks, a small wooden box, large concrete pipes, up hot metal stairwells and scaling over and under the walls and various other obstacles. It required using every muscle in the body to squeeze, bend, stretch, crawl and hoist oneself through the difficult route.

As if this wasnt difficult enough, wearing a heavy metal air cylinder that caught on everything it could, it also all had to be done in pitch blackness in 40-60 deg C (104-140 deg F) heat with putrid diesel smoke filling the enclosed environment.

We survived the initial tour and changed cylinders bracing for our final test of the day.

The instructors fired up the two diesel burners, which continually spewed out hot thick black smoke and heated the chamber up like a sauna. They also closed all the windows blocking out the natural light and keeping the heat and smoke in.

Navigating my large six-foot frame through the course was a very physically arduous task. Being so tall meant that with the bulky BA tank on my back I only narrowly fitted through some obstacles and had to go sideways through most of them.

One of the large concrete pipes that was angled upwards was particularly tricky. The entry to it was via a sharp narrow right angle bend. The only way through was to manouver my body into the pipe, hands first, and using my feet push myself fully around the bend into the pipe.

There was not enough room to move your arms once inside the pipe so I would reach up as far as I could and grip the end with my fingers. This way I could haul myself through to the top of the pipe.

The other very difficult obstacle was a small box on the catwalk. It was wider than it was taller and therefore only just large enough for me to fit through it sideways. Once again I would have to reach my arms through to the other side and try and pull myself through at the awkward angle.

Occasionally the large diesel burners would fire up, shooting out bright flames that illuminated the maze in an evil orange glow. When it did I would utilise the light to race through the maze as fast as I could and take whatever shortcuts I could. Apart from that I just tried to memorize the course and make my way using the guideline.

It was very challenging but we all carried it out bar one, who pulled out. For seriously clausrophobic candidates or those scared of the dark or heat this was not the place to be.

The next day we arrived at 8am to find the grinning instructors had already started up the smoke chamber, which was heating up rapidly. We got changed into the regulation overalls, had roll call then donned our BA units preparing for the worst.

By now the heat in the chamber looked intense. Smoke seeped out the narrow gaps of the metal windows and under the doorways. I don’t know the exact temperature but it felt like it couldnt have got much hotter. To make things harder we had to take a wet 90mm coiled hose through the obstacle course with us and ensure it remained coiled. These things weighed about 25 kgs (55lbs).

Despite my fitness, I found it totally physically exhausting. As I crawled through the maze the loose, wet, heavy hose kept uncoiling or get snagged slowing my progress. The extra effort of manoeuvring the hose used valuable air. I also found it stressful as I fought off feelings of claustrophobia and getting stuck.I managed to complete the course successfully. Not everyone did however and a few more people pulled out of the course or were eliminated.

The second weekend involved much of the same. One of the more enjoyable tasks involved being paired up with another candidate and dragging a dummy through the chamber. Having someone else to help made all the difference. Comradrie really helps, not only physically, but mentally as well.

However the scariest test still lay ahead. On the last day we were driven out to a neighbouring suburb where and a manhole was opened in a suburban street.

The instructor told us the route to take. We were to go down into the manhole wearing BA and take a spare cylinder with us and head along the large undergorund drainpipe until we came to a concrete room. We were to feel our way in the pitch backness to find the furthermost pipe on the right and take that route. Then we would come to a larger room with three pipes leading out of it and once again take the pipe on the right. If we ran out of air while down there we were to change cylinders. The course had to be done completly by feel, as there was absolutely no light source at all.

One by one, at set time intervals, we had to lower oursleves into the dark underground tunnel and crawl through the storm water drain along the given route. It was pitch black, slimy and, I hate to admit it, but very scary.

I just concentrated on getting on with it and scurried along the tunnel as best I could, blocking out the thoughts of rats, rainwater downpours and unexpected earthquakes. I eventually found the first room and using my hands managed to locate the next tunnel entrance. I raced through that and came to the larger room, which had much larger pipes coming out of it. At least I could almost walk through this one instead of crawling but the down side was that it was also waste deep in water.

Eventually I could see light at the exit and I waded through the water into a small outside creek. Thank God it was finally over.

After everyone was accounted for, we returned to the training school and had a shower. As I bathed naked under refreshing hot water I was shocked by what I suddenly discovered. My right knee that I had injured many years ago had swollen up to the size of a softball. I cursed but it was also becomming too painful to ignore. Getting dressed, I plucked up the courage and I went to see the instructor.

Without hesitation he had a fireman get a van and whisk me away to the nearest ER where I was promptly seen. The doctor said it wasn’t anything too serious, probably just some fluid collection due to all the crawling and I returned to the training centre with much relief and a bandaged knee.

The instructor was initially furious thinking I had made it all up but the fireman that came with me placated him explaining my injury was legitimate buit not serious. I was petrified he would fail me from the course.

Thankfully I was allowed to stay and carry out the final practical test. We had to sit a written paper and put the BA on within a given time. I had practiced this exercise down to a fine art and passed both tests no problem. Finally the day was over and I had passed what was probably the hardest physical and mental challenge I had ever encountered in my life.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

More tails from the fire front

Another fatal accident I attended involved a petrol tanker. The driver got too close to the gravel verge and lost control. In doind so he bumped into the car in front of him causing it to slide sideways into an oncoming which was towing a horse float.

The unfortunate vehicle involved in the head on had some teenage girls in it and at least one of them was killed outright. I remember seeing her still trapped in the car frozen in her last moment of action. She must have seen the car coming straight for her as there was a look of horror on what was left of her face as her life was violently forced out of her.

Motor vehicle accidents were always emotionally draining but structual fires took the cake when it came to phyical endurance.

Being a rural service town we often got called out to Hay barn fires, which were always long and arduous events. A farmer would put his hay bales in the hay shed too early and the decomposing grass woudl give off enough heat to cause spontaneous combustion.

Once the blaze had been extinguished, each heavy sodden hay bail had to be individually pulled out and hosed down. The hay was always ruined, as the animals wouldn’t go near it, probably because it smelled smoky. Not only would the farmer loose his shed and any machinery inside he would also loose his winter feed.

It was also a challenge finding water for country fires. In towns and cities the water main provided easy supply via fire hydrants, but rural addresses were a different story. Each Fire Engine carried portable pumps that could suck water out of creeks, tanks, rivers, lakes or wherever we could find it.

An unusual incident that I attended involved a leaking acid chemical tank at a Dairy factory.

A faulty valve allowed concentrated acid to flow unconctrollably into the confines of a small brick wall which surrounded the tank.

A Technical Liaison Officer (industrial chemist) attended as an advisor who thought it would be best to dilute the acid with water to a safe level then remove it.

Now in theory this seemed like a reasonable resolution, so we set about hosing down the toxic solution with copious amounts of water. Unfortunately we soon discovered that diluting this quantity of acid with water caused an exothermic reaction to occur that heated up the container rapidly to boiling point. One moment we were happily hosing this thing down and the next thing it started vibrating with the heat, threatening to explode and shower us all with acid.

There were some very tense moments as we waited for the worst to happen. Fortunately the heat dissipated and we continued to dilute it, albeit at a slower pace.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Playing With Fire

As I near completion of my High School years, my fascination in Fire engines had not dwindled over the years and the chance to be directly involved with them soon presented itself.

The local Fire Brigade in the town I lived in was manned completely by volunteers. Whenever there was an emergency, they would be hailed to the station by the double- barrelled air raid siren that would wail over the town. After hearing the siren and watching them turnout several times I was determined to join their ranks.

When I turned sixteen another kid from my school and I applied to join the Fire Brigade. My application was successful and I joined as a junior firefighter.

Training was on a Monday night and I was soon taught all the basic Firefighting skills. This included learning how to hoist and scale ladders, roll out and roll up hoses, how to connect the standpipe (to get water out of the underground fire hydrants)and how to handle the branches (nozzle). It was exciting and challenging and I was determined to prove myself.

Our Station had two front line fire appliances and a small rescue tender, which carried the ‘Jaws of Life’. This is a hydraulic tool used to extricate people from their mangled wrecks at motor vehicle accidents. We were also taught how to use this equipment.

The town was one of the closest stations to a major intersection on state highway one as it ran out of Auckland. The long stretch of motorway abruptly came to a series of sharp bends and then the intersection which were controlled by traffic lights.

There were many accidents on this stretch of road due to these factors. I remember one particularly bad accident I attended on a Saturday afternoon.

The siren hailed us and I managed to get onto the number two pump which that day was also carrying the Jaws of Life because the Emergency Tender was away for repairs. We were all in high spirits as we sped off to the call, laughing and joking to dispel the tension.

We soon arrived at the scene and adopted a more sombre attitude as we realised the extent of the trauma involved. A large solid sedan had collided with a much smaller vehicle head on. The small motorvehicle had four adults and two unsecured baby occupants and the larger vehicle two adults and three kids.

The smaller car was virtually destroyed by the force of the impact, which split it open like a tin can. The occupants had all been thrown clear and it became apparent that both babies and at least one of the adults were killed instantly.

We got to work and cut the remaining victim from the mangled wreck but she was unconscious with a serious head injury and was not expected to live.

There were not enough ambulances initially and I ended up looking after a teenage boy who was in the back seat of the larger sedan. He had a tender abdomen, which turned out to be internal bleeding. All I could offer was re-assurance until the medics arrived and carted him off.

The scene was eventually cleared of patients and debris and we returned to our station as a more subdued and silent crew. The bar was opened and alcohol flowed freely as we informally de-briefed each other over by discussing the details of the harrowing event.

This was to be my introduction to trauma accidents on the roadway.

Friday, July 07, 2006


Flying at 2000ft above the water the helicopter shook rythmatically as the blades chopped through the air and made the well know supersonic thumping sound.

I was one of twelve passengers, sandwiched on the edge of the seat onboard the Bell 212 chopper, as it flew over the Tasman sea on my way to the Maui B offshore oil platform.

This was my first tour of duty as an offshore medic. It was a sixth month contract, a convenient fill-in job, while I decided what to do with myself longer term.

As we chugged along in low cloud, I could occasionally catch glimpses of the mesmerising deep, blue water, well below me and I started to think about what the new role would entail.

I was about to Live and work with a group of total strangers for two weeks at a time in confined quarters and be responsible for their health and safety for the entire stint. Although a little anxious, I was also excited about the new role and thought how lucky I was to be one of the few people that get to work in the well paid off shore industry.

As I sat there mesmerised by the deep blue ocean staring back at me I started to reflect on the last ten years of my life that had led me to this amazing opportunity.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

The Beginning

I was born in 1967 and right from the beginning there was something different about me. I was the ninth and last child in our household and my arrival almost balanced up the girl-boy ratio between my five sisters and three brothers.

The striking difference however was in the nature of my arrival. My father was visiting my mother in the pre-labour ward when I suddenly decided to make an early arrival. With little prior warning and much to my dad’s shock and horror, out I popped right in front of him in the ward room.

Mum was a registered nurse so from an early age I held an interest in all things medical and for some reason, in fire engines as well.

As I grew older, the emergency services were definitely something I was interested in and I can clearly recall the first accident I ever came across at the intersection right outside our house. A motorcyclist on his way to work had been knocked over by a car and had broken his leg.

There was quite a little crowd gathered around the victim as the ambulance raced up Queens Drive with its headlights ablaze and red lights flashing. It was a modern vehicle for those times a Bedford ambulance but I don’t remember much else about it. I must have been about eleven or twelve.

The second accident I came across in Invercargill was just one year later and was far more serious. A train track repair machine, which was used to repair the rails and ballast, was steaming along the main trunk line and approached a rail crossing.

Tragically, despite the fact that there was almost a clear line of site from the road, it managed to collide with a school bus full of kids on their way home.

The impact swung the bus sideways careering kids out the side windows. The unfortunate front passenger, a young schoolgirl, was propelled through the front window and ended up under the train where she was instantly killed.

I was biking home from school when I came across it. The girl wedged under the train was the first thing I saw. The enormity of the situation hit me, and feeling it was inappropriate to stare I rode on to my dad’s work and proceeded to describe what I had seen. He was quite sympathetic and reassuring although I couldn’t rationalise my feelings at the time. It was a mixture of fascination and disgust.