Help always at hand

19:40, Apr 21 2014
antony johnson
CARE AND ATTENTION: Antony Johnson tends to a patient en route to Timaru Hospital after she fell and broke her arm.

No two nights are the same for the team of staff and volunteers who crew the Order of St John's ambulances in Timaru. Reporter Alexia Johnston went along on a Friday night to see first-hand what the job involves.

Grant Phillips and Antony Johnson have just started their shift when the first call comes in.

Phillips, a volunteer, and Johnson, an emergency medical technician, have just completed a "critical check" of supplies in the back of the ambulance when their pagers go off, alerting them to a man who has "collapsed" in his home.

st john
HELPING HAND: St John offers a range of services including caring callers to assist the elderly.

Lights and sirens blazing, we race along the streets of Timaru towards the patient's address.

Running red lights is a difficult concept to grasp, despite slowing down to check for innocent motorists.

Arthur*, 86, they are told, has collapsed. It turns out he appeared to have fallen asleep and was unresponsive when a family member tried to wake him. It was his third episode of its kind that day.


Patiently waiting, for what probably felt like eternity, the caller can be seen at the window, watching for help to arrive.

She calmly greets the medical team at the door and shows them to their patient. By the time they arrive he appears content, lying on a couch wondering what all the fuss is about.

He believes he had simply just fallen asleep, but after realising his condition could well be worse than he first thought, welcomes the care of St John staff.

"You do what you've got to do," he tells Johnson and Phillips.

Johnson is quick to realise he is dealing with a man who has a sense of humour so responds with "well, we'll stay for tea then".

Arthur's heart and blood pressure are checked before Johnson analyses his medication, looking out for anything that could potentially prompt such an episode. The medication is then piled into a bag for the trip to hospital.

During all of this, Arthur chats away to the medics, adding enlightenment to the situation.

He explains he had ignored advice to take it easy and instead chopped some firewood and washed dishes earlier in the day.

While being wheeled into the ambulance via a bed, Arthur makes it known to those around him that he can't believe what is happening.

"I hope this is all a big mistake," he says.

Arthur is totally alert and passes a memory test with flying colours. Despite a slight pause when asked if he can remember who is visiting New Zealand at the moment, he responds with, "Oh, yes, the prince and baby George".

Once at hospital, Johnson passes on all details about Arthur's condition to hospital staff before setting aside 10 minutes to take down his own notes for auditing.

It was later confirmed Arthur had a problem with his heart, a condition medically known as sinus arrest, which causes the heart to stop beating for several seconds. The consequent drop in output is enough to knock him out, Johnson says.

Johnson and Phillips' work with Arthur is done. Seconds later, while the ambulance is still parked at the entrance to the emergency department, their pagers alert them to the next job.

Betty*, 87, has fallen and can't get up. The ambulance, with its abundance of medical equipment lining the walls, races to Betty's address along streets I've only ever known on foot or within the speed limit of my own little car.

When we arrive at Betty's small but well-kept flat, Johnson and Phillips are shown to her bedroom, where she is sprawled in a tiny area of the floor. She is suffering excruciating pain. The image is anyone's worst nightmare, seeing someone who is already frail, stripped even further of their mobility.

She explains, from the tight spot she has got herself into, how she had gone into her bedroom to turn on her electric blanket. However, she took a tumble, knocking her head and sustaining a suspected fracture to her arm. She was able to call for help by pressing a buzzer.

Johnson and Phillips give her pain relief, but decide to call for back-up from a paramedic who has the authority to administer morphine.

"I walked into that room and I could see she was really uncomfortable," Johnson explains.

He gives her methoxyflurime to ease the pain.

"It's what you start with because it's what you've got, but you also know that when you come to move her it's going to hurt. So, calling for back-up from a paramedic with morphine is a smart thing to do ... so you can minimise that discomfort," Johnson says.

Betty's condition improves within minutes, allowing her team of medics to put her arm in a splint, and move her into an upright position. They place her on the edge of her bed, during which time she chats away to her rescuers.

As her fingers start to swell, the focus moves to the many beautiful rings lining her fingers. Strategically, one-by-one, the rings are pulled off by a St John representative. The only noise to come from Betty in the process is an explanation of her rings and how they came about. They're then placed safely in her jewellery box, ready for her to wear once she has recovered.

The medical team eventually gets her out of her confined flat and on to a bed.

"You're doing a grand job," she tells them, as they wheel her to the ambulance.

Further examination at the hospital confirms Betty has broken her upper arm, medically known as proximal humerus.

Arthur and Betty's rescuers are no strangers to medical dramas.

Phillips, a St John volunteer, has cared for the sick and wounded alongside a senior staff member for the past two years. He does a six-hour night shift once a week. He moved to New Zealand from South Africa 10 years ago and works fulltime as Timaru Christian School's deputy principal.

After arriving in New Zealand, Phillips decided to volunteer his spare time to an organisation. He settled with St John after witnessing a house fire in his neighbourhood.

"From our house you could see down the hill to [the fire]. You could see the ambulance and people attending and I thought, again, I could [do that]. That was the final coming together of [his involvement]."

His role with St John involves training on the job.

"One great thing St John does highly value and place great emphasis on is training."

The option is there to advance his role into a fulltime career, he says.

"St John have been great. They start you off with basic first aid. They hold your hand from base level and provide you with the opportunities. They take your hand and walk the road with you."

Phillips is working towards a National Diploma in Ambulance Practice, which is NZQA accredited.

He has only one piece of advice for anyone considering a similar role.

"Stick it out for six months. Then you know what commitment it takes because obviously it takes [people away from] family time."

Johnson on the other hand, knew "straight away" a career with St John was for him.

He moved to New Zealand from England 10 years ago and initially settled in Geraldine as a farmer. He was browsing through a Geraldine community publication when he read an ad, alerting him to St John's need for volunteers.

"I was a rural volunteer for Geraldine," he says.

He later transferred to Timaru after signing a fixed-term contract. His role, of emergency medical technician, is paid and permanent.

By 9pm we are back at base and there's time for a cup of tea and biscuit.

Phillips signs off at midnight, but the night is still young for Johnson.

By 2.15am he's on his way to Waimate where a car has hit a power pole and burst into flames.

* Not their real names.

To donate to the St John appeal visit: Ambulance Appear Challenge 2014 - St John Timaru's Fundraising Page

The Timaru Herald