Paramedics so much more than "ambulance drivers"

The paramedics of Street Hospital, a show which follows the work Wellington Free Ambulance workers do at night in ...

The paramedics of Street Hospital, a show which follows the work Wellington Free Ambulance workers do at night in Courtenay Place.

As a new season of Street Hospital arrives, Keith Sharp spends a morning with the Wellington Free Ambulance service and ends up full of admiration for their work.

As anyone who has needed help will know, the siren of an approaching ambulance can be one of the most hopeful and reassuring of sounds. It's the simple fact that someone is on the way to assist you. 

So being in an ambulance with two paramedics heading to an emergency in Wellington was a fascinating experience and, as we weaved through the city traffic, I wondered if the person in need could hear us coming.

Sophie Abbott and Sean Thompson

Sophie Abbott and Sean Thompson

Thankfully, neither of the two emergencies that paramedics Sean Thompson and Sophie Abbott attended that morning were injury accidents. The first was to a middle-aged office worker who had suffered an epileptic seizure. Awake but confused, he was reluctant to go to hospital but the patient ministrations of the team persuaded him that he should. It was just as well, as he began to suffer further mild seizures in the ambulance.

It takes a special kind of person to be a paramedic. The over-used job description calling for "an ability to work accurately under pressure" certainly applies to this job. Sean is a lead clinical paramedic with 15 years' experience under his belt. His partner for the day, Sophie, is a newcomer by comparison but you wouldn't think so.

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Wellington Free Ambulance Paramedics at work

Wellington Free Ambulance Paramedics at work

"A lot of people, they're not quite aware of the role of a paramedic," says Sean. "They have this idea that we just patch people up and drive them to hospital like a glorified taxi service. There's really no such thing as an 'ambulance driver'. Our role has developed hugely over the past 20-30 years."

Paramedics still waiting for recognition

Incredibly, despite the ever-increasing expertise of the role, paramedics are still not classed as registered health professionals. That should change with legislation heading for Parliament but the decision could still be two years away.

TV Guide is in stores every Thursday.

TV Guide is in stores every Thursday.

Sean says: "It's extraordinary that it hasn't happened to this point."

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And it takes time to rise through the many levels of the profession. Sophie has been a volunteer for just over two years, beginning with urgent community care work. She is currently an emergency medical technician and is hoping to gain an internship. 

"I'm still fairly new," she says. "Until I finish the degree this is as high as I can go. If I can get an internship, and get a permanent position, then after a year I can aim for a place as a fully-qualified paramedic."

Competition for positions is intense but more donations could open up more spaces. It's how the Wellington Free Ambulance Service works and survives.

"The more funding we get the more higher-trained paramedics we have because we can then afford to pay them," says Sophie. 

The second call-out was to an elderly gentleman with severe breathing difficulties. At home in bed in a retirement village, he was in a bad way and struggling for every breath. Like the first patient, he was headed reluctantly for hospital. And as Sophie expertly manouevres the ambulance in a tight space, I lend a hand carrying some of the equipment the paramedics use and discover just how heavy some of it is. It's not a job for the weak of arm.

Picking up the party pieces

Unlike many cases seen on the TV series, Street Hospital, both cases we attended that Monday morning were people in need of help through no fault of their own. It's a different matter on party nights in Courtenay Place, where the cameras follow these same paramedics in their work. 

That's where some of the more depressing examples of human recklessness can be seen over Saturday night and Sunday morning, when the alcohol flows and washes civilised behaviour down the drain. 

I ask Sean if he ever goes away feeling angry by what he sees.

"The only time I would feel angry is maybe if someone has assaulted somebody or done something violent towards anybody innocent," he says.

"But I don't get angry typically. We've got to be professional to do our job. Regardless of what's caused them to need our care, you treat them without judgment."

And the Saturday night issues carry over into Sunday sports days. 

Says Sophie: "The ones we don't pick up from the (sports) field we pick up from the pub afterwards."

With two patients attended to with quiet professionalism and safely delivered to Wellington Hospital, the time seems to have flown by and, with Sophie's instruction, I now know how to load a stretcher into an ambulance.  

Even after just a few hours with them I know that if I am ever in need of a paramedic, I want people like Sean and Sophie on my case.

Street Hospital screens on TV2 on Thursday July at 8pm.

 - TV Guide

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