Ms Maher admits failing her first attempt at getting in to the service was her own fault – “I didn’t do enough study” – and she was knocked back on a fitness test the second time after breaking her ankle.
But it was third time lucky and in 2005 she was inducted into the government’s last bridging course that paid for nursing staff to study to become paramedics. Today, all new recruits are fully university trained, at their own expense.
“I feel sorry for them. The media thinks this job is quite glamorous, but in fact it can be quite simple. We might get called out for just a sore foot, or someone might just want to be made to feel better,” Ms Maher says.
“Some think they’ve learned everything they need to know; others are really frightened. They haven’t seen anything; it could be 12 months before their first cardiac arrest and when you think they could be called to look after a child who is dying in their first couple of weeks, it would be horrible.”
Her partner, Stuart Walker, is also a paramedic. The couple juggle shift work, time with each other, home renovations and visits from Stuart’s three young boys in an exercise of organised chaos.
“They are crappy social hours. We work five weekends out of eight and you miss birthdays and Christmas and special family occasions. It’s hard to be involved in sporting activities.
It probably wouldn’t work with a partner who wasn’t in emergency services. They’d resent the hours and wouldn’t understand the pressures of the job anywhere near as well.”
Ms Maher says there is no predicting who, or what, will affect her. “We recently resuscitated a nine-day-old baby. We did a brilliant job but I knew that baby was in for a rough time and I couldn’t stop thinking about it and the parents.
”Or it might be someone who has lost their partner of seven years, or thinking about the impact an injury will have on someone for the rest of their lives.
“The horrible jobs get stuck in your head, and the good people you meet get stuck in your head.
“Some of the sights you see, you can’t help but laugh. I’ve cried more than a few times too, especially when you relate to things in your own life.
“I went to a job where twin boys had ignited a gas tank in the shed and got severely burnt. Stuart’s twin boys are the same age, and I went home and moved everything in the shed that was dangerous out of their reach.”
‘How lucky am I that I actually love this job? I know I get paid for it, but it’s a real privilege to look after people. I get the opportunity to do something positive and make someone’s day a little better.’ – Bryan Cass
She says communication skills are most important, to put people at ease and gain their trust.
“The majority of people are nice to you. They see you as instant help. On the other hand, being a paramedic is a big responsibility. In hospital there is a button at the back of the bed and you can call for assistance.
“On the ambulance, you have 20 minutes to locate the problem and make a decision about what treatment to give. You use your fingers, eyes, and ears to decide what to do.”
Ms Maher says workloads on both ambulance and hospital services increased dramatically when doctors stopped bulk-billing.
“Really, you can’t blame them. It can take up to three or four weeks to see a doctor, and then they charge you $65 to see them and when you’ve got two or three kids in tow, that can be a lot of money.
“But some people call an ambulance for silly reasons and sometimes I do get annoyed. I remember going lights and sirens to a guy who had cut his hand on a tile while renovating his bathroom.
”When I took off the towel there was a scratch about two centimetres long. His girlfriend was furious. I put a Band-Aid on it and left.
“Drunks are by far the worst. It’s a futile exercise talking to them – they are either rolling on the floor, laughing or belligerent, and they put themselves in danger all the time.”
Working on a single-responder unit out of MICA (mobile intensive care ambulance) 6 in Frankston, night shift can be long and lonely.
“I miss the camaraderie of other ambulances officers when I’m on my own. You tend to think a lot more and worry about what might happen, not what does. But I love this job. Every day there is something different, and you never stop learning.”
Bryan Cass is nearing the end of his 47-year career as a paramedic. A natural charmer, Mr Cass, 69, genuinely likes people, and as a paramedic who’s seen everything from tragedy to the miraculous on the job, that’s a good thing.
“How lucky am I that I actually love this job? I know I get paid for it but it’s a real privilege to look after people. I get the opportunity to do something positive and make someone’s day a little better.”
Mr Cass grew up in Colac. While working at a butter factory, he was one of two CFA members sent to learn first aid, and his interest took off from there.
“Two weeks after we got married, Dawn and I packed up and headed to Melbourne for me to join the ambulance service.
There was no application process. I walked in, they checked my licence, went around the corner to D24 [police headquarters] to make sure that I didn’t have a criminal record, found out I was all right and asked when I could start.
”That was in 1965 and in those days, we had no training, not even CPR. We just drove the ambulance.”
Mr Cass was based at Moorabbin, where he worked until 1972 when he completed a coronary care course and successfully applied to join one of the first MICA crews on the road. In 1981, he entered another phase of his career and became a training officer.
“I saw so many good people come and go in the ’60s and ’70s because they had no one to mentor them, or train them. After a three-week introduction course you were on your own and just had to wing it. So when they decided to put a training officer in every branch, I applied.
“Thirteen years ago a position became available at Sorrento and we came down here. There are the same problems here as everywhere, but being an older population it’s a little quieter. And it’s a great place to retire. I know I’ll have to one day. Just not yet.”
Mr Cass says new recruits average only five years on the job, some having started off as 21-year-old graduates.
“It’s hard to have any life experience at that age and they don’t fully understand what it’s all about. But that’s true of any job.
“Our job has become so high profile; expectations are pretty high and they don’t understand most of it is ordinary people with ordinary lives.
”It’s not the glamour side where an arm is cut off and they save it – a lot of it is cleaning up s–t, or dealing with a urinary tract infection. Not terribly glamorous.”
Mr Cass says he got a “buzz” delivering 14 babies into the world. But the flip side of life is death.
“The worst thing is kids. An older couple may run off the road and be killed. It’s sad, and you feel for the family. But you can look at it that they were healthy, and died together, and in some ways that can be a nice thought, you know? But it’s tragic to die at a young age. It would drive you mad if you let it all get to you.”
He still remembers resuscitating a 55-year-old in 1965 who became a friend of the family and valued every day he woke up. The man died recently.
“Another I saved cursed every day he was alive. Any problem he had, he’d say ‘I should have died’. Eventually he took his own life. You learn that whether it be one day, one year or 100, make the most of it.”
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