After 59 years in the St John Ambulance Service, John Jones thought he’d seen it all. Then, on a callout last year, as the ambulance raced towards Manjimup, a baby was born en route. John was delighted by the eager tot, but was also pleased there was a midwife on board. “It gets into your blood,” he says, referring to his work as a Voluntary Ambulance Development Officer and Trainer for the Bridgetown brigade.
The Order of St John is an international charity, which provides first aid, health care and support services in over forty countries. The Perth St John Association was founded in 1892, organising First Aid training for the emergency services. When the railway arrived in Bridgetown, so did the St John Railway Ambulance Corps, with the Bridgetown subdivision officially registered in 1929. In the early years, the division ferried patients to hospital in private cars, but in 1934 community donations purchased the first van. Broken down vans, rats in the garage and equipment thefts all presented teething problems. Radio communication was also a disaster: their first two-way radio lost contact as they descended the hill towards Manjimup.
In 1960, John earned his first aid certificate, but aged 17, he had to wait another four years to be able to drive the ambulances (the first job of all volunteers). This was around the time CPR was introduced. “Now we’ve got all the gadgets,” he says, referring to the over $1 million worth of ambulances at the sub-centre, but they still rely on the experience of older members and the trusted training methods put into place at the beginning. The ex-plumber’s history with St John reads like novel, including leadership positions in the Manjimup, Bridgetown and Northcliffe brigades. John retired in 2005 and had both hips replaced, but is now busier than ever working five shifts a week.
Fellow trainer, Erica Duffett, joined St John because of a snake. The highly experienced officer still shudders at the thought of that snake. St John member, Terry Lamey, came out to remove the creature and convinced Erica to do her first aid certificate in the process; sweet talking her to into volunteering shortly afterwards. “It’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” says Erica, who had always wanted to pursue nursing.
Twelve years on, Erica is a qualified Trainer, running first aid courses from Bunbury to Collie. She’s unapologetic about her attitude towards her job, “I’m so passionate, it drives people nuts.” She particularly enjoys teaching the primary school kids who provide her with, “forty-five minutes of sheer enthusiasm”. As the sub-centre fills with volunteers for their bi-monthly training sessions (every second and fourth Wednesday), Erica can’t help herself and she rushes off to assist, “I love to be able to impart my knowledge so that people are empowered to assist someone in need.”
Susie Kemp, a visiting RN, is talking about emergency childbirth as part of the Continuing Education Program all ambulance officers must follow. On a stretcher lies a pregnant mannequin with a lift-able belly. It’s very lifelike and there are a few winces from the volunteers as Soo confirms that they will practice delivering the mannequin baby, which will become stuck during ‘birth’.
One of the eager faces is young volunteer Heidi Rodgers. Heidi was just filling in time after finishing school when she was inspired by family friends, who were involved with St John, to step out of her comfort zone. Like John Jones, her involvement was limited until she cast-off her ‘P’ plates, but she persisted and is now an Emergency Medical Assistant.
Heidi admits she was initially nervous, but says her expectations were unfounded. “It’s a lot of fun actually and I look forward to the call outs.” Her biggest challenge has been living in Greenbushes, which is too far away for emergency call-outs. She’s countered that by staying at the sub-centre’s new accommodation unit. Not only has Heidi developed confidence in herself and her abilities, she’s also found a calling and will be enrolling in nursing.
Like Heidi, Greenbushes-based Tom Barrett is too far away for emergencies, but the 80-year-old keeps busy with transfers. Tom spent 29 years teaching Social Work at UWA before retiring down south. He was 72 when he was recruited and soon discovered that his social work background was an asset, enabling him to talk empathetically with patients. “It’s not just a broken arm,” he says, “there’s someone attached to it…and they often want to talk.”
There is no state ambulance service in Western Australia, with the majority of cases in rural areas handled by St John volunteers. In such a large state with remote populations, it would be difficult for the government to offer a competitive service. However, the Health Department does cover the cost of inter-hospital transfers, which has relieved fund-raising pressure on the Bridgetown sub-centre enormously. Tom highlights the advantage retired volunteers bring to the brigade, explaining that the majority of transfers to Bunbury and Perth take place during the day. A round trip can take up to six hours from Pemberton and many more if you go to Perth. They are demanding hours and Tom, who works the day shifts (6am – 6pm), actually retired last year. He soon returned because the role has given him such purpose and fulfilment.
In Bridgetown, Jo Loton, a high school English teacher and mum of two, had plenty keeping her busy when she completed a First Aid course for work. It piqued her interest immediately. Jo’s husband, Nathan, was heavily involved in the volunteer fire brigade and she also wanted to belong to something meaningful and meet new people. She is now an Emergency Medical Assistant on the night emergency team. She describes her nightly preparations, keeping her uniform at the ready, and the car backed into the driveway for a speedy exit. One weekend she had five callouts, but emphasises that that’s unusual. She has considered how she would respond if attending one of her students, but is confident her training has prepared her for every possibility.
In 2014, John Jones was nominated for a WA, Pride of Australia Award in the ‘Heroism’ category and in 2017 was awarded an Ambulance Service Medal. He appreciates the recognition but he’s clear the real satisfaction comes from knowing you’ve helped someone in need and from the camaraderie amongst volunteers. Heidi agrees; she’s benefitted from the support of her experienced team and she challenges young people to get involved, “It’s such a rewarding thing to do with your time, you can only gain from all the skills you will learn.”
“Every minute lost attending an emergency equates to about 10% of your survival,” Tom explains. A Greenbushes family once contacted him to help their daughter who was suffering an asthma attack. As a qualified first responder with a defibrillator at home, he was able to stabilize her with oxygen before the ambulance crew arrived. Now, there are over 20 AED’s spread across the Shire, with more being installed all the time. Having the knowledge and access to one, as Tom does, can mean the difference between life or death. Meanwhile, Jo is hopeful that being a community member allows her to give families something a stranger couldn’t. “I may be able to bring better understanding to an emergency because of my knowledge of the child.”
To maintain this track record, there is a constant need for new volunteers willing to “get in their greens” when called. St John volunteers are a diverse range of people from a variety of backgrounds, professions and occupations. Whatever your age or stage of life, St John provides an opportunity to experience how much there is to gain from giving.
If you would like to find out more about volunteering with St John Ambulance Bridgetown, please contact our Recruitment Officer Erica for a friendly chat: 0417 990 832
Address: 17 Pioneer Street, Bridgetown
Office hours: Monday – Friday 9:00am – 2:30pm
Phone: 9761 1049