WFA’s Doug Hosking and Anne Meyer wouldn’t want to be doing anything else. PHOTOS/HAYLEY GASTMEIER
Rich or poor, young or old, a minor accident or a life-threatening emergency, Wellington Free Ambulance does not discriminate, attending every medical 111 call in the Wairarapa region. HAYLEY GASTMEIER gets a taste of life as a paramedic and witnesses first-hand how no two days are ever the same.
From the outset, it is clear just how passionate Wellington Free Ambulance staff are about life.
I walk into the Masterton station at 5.45am on Monday and a room full of people dressed in green uniforms is dotting over a small, black cat with a short tail and some patches of fur missing.
The cat has various names, depending on which of the region’s 28 paramedics are rostered on, and is swiftly shoed from the building when the boss turns up.
Allan (Al) Bealing and Andrew Gladding have been burdened with me for the day, and by 6.10am we are on our way to Wairarapa Hospital.
An elderly man with dementia needs to be returned to his Masterton resthome, and the patient transfer service doesn’t start until 8am.
After the polite gentleman is safely back in his quarters, Al comments on all the memorabilia that had been hanging on his wall.
“When we picked him up from the hospital he just seemed like any other frail old man.
“But when we put him in his room we can see he’s ex-military, he’s been married and he’s had a family.
“Here he is, living in this little square room, he’s served his country, raised a family… one day it will be me living in that small room watching roses grow.”
At 48, Al has been a paramedic for 18 years. He says it’s jobs like this one that keeps him in the role.
Previously a medical equipment salesman, he began volunteering with WFA in 2000 solely to learn more about the products he was supplying to doctors.
Suffice to say, not long after he switched retail for a life as a healthcare professional.
WFA paramedics work an eight-day roster – two 12-hour day shifts, two 12-hour night shifts, and then four days off – providing emergency care at accidents or emergency sites, as well as during transportation to hospital.
Helping little old ladies up from a fall is at one end the spectrum. Cardiac arrests are at the other.
Andrew tells me the most utilised piece of equipment onboard the ambulance is the defibrillator, for monitoring and, if necessary, shocking hearts back into action. It’s worth more than $30,000.
It’s a hefty piece of equipment and is hauled out of the ambulance and carried to patients, who could be anywhere from their bedrooms, to a suburban roadside or in remote bush in the Tararua Ranges.
While physical strength is important, the ability to solve problems under pressure is vital, says Andrew, 30.
The Martinborough father-of-one is 13 years into the career he knew he wanted from an early age, and works alongside his dad, Rob, whose been a paramedic for 14 years.
The size of the Wairarapa region means one callout has the potential to last four or five hours.
Back at the station I’m told to seize the opportunity for a toilet, snack and water break.
Al’s just finishing off his bowl of Weet-Bix when the second job of the day comes in at 8.20am.
A woman has fallen and hit her head at her rural property.
When the accident happened a day earlier she seemed fine, but she’s woken up with a throbbing headache and uncontrollable tremors.
Her husband and daughter say she isn’t acting like her normal self.
Halfway to the address, Al and Andrew are notified that the patient is deteriorating and the job is upgraded to urgent.
On goes the siren and the flashing lights.
The foot hits the floor, and I’m banished to buckle up in the back of the ‘bus’.
At the house, the woman is thoroughly assessed and given pain relief, before being carried from the second floor down stairs to the driveway in a foldout wheelchair.
Andrew and Al then transfer her onto a stretcher, which pops up from the ground to waist level like magic and rolls into the ambulance with ease.
Al says the ‘self-loading stretcher’ revolutionised the job, removing the need for a lot of “lifting and twisting”.
Andrew says back injuries, previously common among paramedics, diminished when these stretchers were introduced.
At the Emergency Department, the paramedics brief the doctors on the woman’s state.
Now she is in their hands.
Andrew says administering medication, while important, is a small part of a bigger picture.
“There’s a lot more to it.”
He says reassuring and listening also comes with the job, with fascinating stories from patients from all walks of life a daily reward.
And no two days are ever the same.
“We have no idea what our day is going to involve.
“We could go bush, we could be stuck at a police operation for hours in all weather, any location.”
Andrew says the presence of “blood and guts” is a rare occurrence.
WFA manager for the Wairarapa area, Nigel Watson says he is proud to be representing the only ambulance service in New Zealand that is completely free to the public.
However, there’s an annual price tag of $28.4million to keep the service operating in the greater Wellington region.
The organisation must raise $4m each year to make up a shortfall in Government funding.
Nigel says he’s thankful for council grants and community donations.
He is often told by people inspired by WFA’s work that they have donated to St John as they believed the organisations were one in the same.
This is not the case. WFA is the only emergency ambulance service in the region.
In the 12 months ending March 2017, WFA attended 5000 patients in the Wairarapa.
On top of the 28 paramedics operating here, there are 13 volunteers.
Because the final destination for many ambulances is Masterton, throughout the day ambulances must be re-distributed throughout the region.
We are assigned to Carterton, but on route we are called with urgency to a wheelchair-bound, middle-aged woman needing assistance.
“Thanks for coming to get me,” the woman says, as she is helped into the ambulance destined for ED.
She explains how it’s 30 years to the day since the accident that claimed her mobility.
At 12pm, halfway through Al and Andrew’s shift, I bid them, and the unofficially adopted cat, farewell.
On day two, Anne Meyer tells me she is in her 18th year with the organisation.
The 39-year-old is one of the region’s five Intensive Care Paramedics, who have “a few more skills and can give a few more drugs”.
They are called to all life-threatening emergencies.
When Anne started out, women in the ambulance service were almost unheard of, she says.
“There was a little ad in the newspaper to volunteer one night a week.
“I rang up and in those days you had to do a very extensive assessment just to be a volunteer.”
She fell in love with life on an ambulance, quit her job at Wellington Airport, and trained to become a full-time paramedic.
Since then she has continued to up-skill, gaining a degree and other qualifications, and has worked as a clinical educator, training up others in the field.
Anne says at times working as a paramedic can be confronting.
“We see some pretty horrific socio-economic conditions . . . it’s that heartbreaking stuff – children that are under resourced I guess.”
Featherston’s Doug Hosking, 35, is almost seven years into his ambulance service stint.
“I wanted to do this since I was young.”
The father of a new daughter says after 10 years in forestry, he finally followed his dream, inspired by his family.
Doug’s mother is a nurse.
But his medical roots go back generations.
His great great great grandfather, Doctor William Henry Hosking, introduced the first x-ray machine to New Zealand and was the first superintendent of Masterton Hospital, a role that was then held by his son.
Contact with people and having the ability to make a positive difference in their lives is why Doug goes to work each day.
“It’s amazing how far human interaction can get you,” he says.
In my whirlwind peek into their lives, I can’t help but be touched by how polite, compassionate and focused WFA staff are with people who have fallen into their care.
It was not surprising to find many of the patients recognising this professionalism and expressing their gratitude, as I will, should I ever be on that stretcher.
Want to be part of the WFA team?
Visit wfa.org.nz to find out about training to be a paramedic, working in the 111 communications centre, or being a patient transfer officer.
WFA is always looking for volunteer medics to help out at events, offer support on shifts, and be as trained first responders in the community.
Having a good network of first responders is key to getting help to critically ill people fast, particularly in the more remote parts of the region.