“Health care is in my blood.” Jillian Smith persevered through a tough recruitment process to become an ambulance paramedic.

On the frontline

Last Updated: 30 Jun 2015
Sophie Raynor

Mountainside rescues, classroom CPR, delivering babies on kitchen floors – it’s all in a day’s work from the women of St John Ambulance.

It was getting late when paramedic Madelyn Coertzen and her pilot received a call to rescue a fallen climber at Bluff Knoll. Madelyn had to work fast – low cloud meant that she had to be winched down to treat the patient, then hauled back up quickly, or risk spending the night on the mountain. To make matters worse, the pair didn't know the true severity of the climber's injuries – they'd heard about a broken leg, but they weren't discounting spinal injuries or something more serious. But Madelyn was cool. "In that moment, I wasn't scared or worried," she says of her time with the patient. "I was completely focused on what needed to be done." Fortunately, the climber's injuries weren't too serious, and Madelyn was able to winch him up into the chopper and stabilise him for the return flight to Perth.

Madelyn will respond to up to four jobs like that per day in her role as a critical care paramedic for St John Ambulance. She's one of only nine in the state, and the only woman in the role – one of just two to graduate from the training program, which Madelyn describes as "gruelling".

She admits that the role is difficult, but thrives on the challenge. "You're working with the elite, not just in your field but alongside senior aviation professionals," she says. "And we're all striving to do our best. The job involves hard work and training, and you need to maintain professional and physical fitness, but it's deeply rewarding."

"My days vary from slow-paced patient transfers to spending 13 hours of a 14-hour shift working on patients who have had cardiac arrests, major trauma or drug overdoses."

Her colleague, community education officer Stacie Cunliffe, agrees. She describes the joy at seeing the "instant relief" in the faces of people she attended to in her previous role as a patient transport officer; although
she doesn't work in emergency situations now, she still finds her work just as meaningful. "It's such a rewarding moment when you see a kid catching on to how important first aid is," she says. "It could be the difference between someone living or dying, and you never know when you might need it."

Someone who needs those skills all the time is ambulance paramedic Jillian Smith. "About the only guarantee in my job is that each shift will turn out differently from the last one," she says. "My days vary from slow-paced patient transfers to spending 13 hours of a 14-hour shift working on patients who have had cardiac arrests, major trauma or drug overdoses." It sounds confronting, but Jillian says she persevered through the tough recruitment and study process to qualify because she couldn't imagine herself doing anything else. "My mum is a nurse and always said health care is in my blood," she says.

Jillian says a good day is a combination of high and low-pressure moments, and that she works through those high-stress situations on auto-pilot. "I don't get emotional or feel sad or stressed, it's a 'right, let's get this done' response," she says. "In those situations, all your training and experience takes over, plus a little adrenalin kicks in. So even if it's 45 degrees outside and I'm doing CPR, I don't notice the heat or the sweat."

Stacie agrees. "With first aid, it doesn't matter when and where it's needed, it comes automatically." She says she also finds that in her students, who only need top-ups after they've completed her basic first aid course. "It requires you to trust your own instincts," Madelyn adds. She has another example of a high-drama chopper rescue: a head-on road crash in Lancelin, where the driver of one car had suffered multiple serious injuries and had been trapped inside the vehicle for hours. "I thought it was touch and go," Madelyn says. "The extent of her injuries was such that I thought she might not make it." Madelyn met the ambulance in Lancelin and stabilised the patient in the helicopter before the pilot flew them to Perth. There, the patient spent months in hospital and required extensive rehabilitation, but pulled through. "Once she recovered, she visited the helicopter base to thank us for saving her life," Madelyn says. "It's those moments that make it all worthwhile. Patients will amaze you. And that's why I never give up on anyone – if they have a strong fighting spirit, a will to live – they just might pull through against all odds."


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