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  • Phoebe Robertson

You Might Feel a Pinch

Altruistically embarked upon by Benedict Robertson (he/him), Phoebe Robertson (she/her)

If someone were to ask me what the most stressful job in the world is, my answer would probably be that of a paramedic. It involves dealing with people in their most vulnerable and distressing states, along with their loved ones. It feels like no matter how hard you try, it's never enough. The ambulance always takes too long to arrive or the paramedics are too occupied with saving lives to update family members on the situation. Personally, I don't think I could do it, even if I were paid for it. But did you know in addition to paid ambulance officers there are roughly 8000 volunteers throughout the country? These volunteers work side by side with paid staff responding and contributing to the over 400,000 calls that the Hato Hone St John ambulance receives every year. Would you be willing to do the same? Ben Robertson's journey towards becoming an Ambulance Officer didn't start with putting on a uniform or turning on the flashing lights of an ambulance; instead, it began in the Kaimai Ranges.

The Kaimai Range divides the western Waikato from the eastern Bay of Plenty, serving as a natural boundary between Hamilton and Tauranga. This area boasts stunning hiking trails and waterfalls, making it an ideal location for Youth Search and Rescue (YSAR). Regularly, Ben would make the journey from Katikati to Tauranga to learn survival skills in New Zealand's native bush, and how to rescue others in need from such terrain.

Both Ben and I come from Katikati, where it's often joked that there's nothing for teenagers to do. However, this is far from the truth. While many of our peers were working jobs in kiwifruit picking or at the local surf club, Ben chose to spend his weekends in the bush. The YSAR group has a motto of 'Learning to Survive, Thrive and Save Lives,' with a focus on training future Search and Rescue and Emergency Management professionals. Although Ben is no longer involved in rescuing those lost in the bush, he continues to utilize the skills and first aid training gained from YSAR as he volunteers with Hato Hone St John ambulance. 

Upon finishing high school, Ben relocated to Ōtautahi (Christchurch) and developed an interest in volunteering with Hato Hone St John. The organization's website offers a comprehensive guide on what one should anticipate when applying to become a volunteer. The process entails filling out an online application, undergoing a thorough police background check, physical assessment, written evaluation, medical screening, attending a 2-day national induction, as well as approximately eight days of courses. It typically takes around eight months from the initial application to being officially certified as a First Responder. Despite the challenges of Covid-19 in 2021, Ben managed to accomplish all of this.

After waiting for about a year, he finally began his first shift as a volunteer ambulance officer. In terms of job priority, green indicates a non-serious situation, while orange suggests seriousness but not an immediate threat to life. Red signifies an immediate threat to life and purple is reserved for suspected cardiac or respiratory arrest cases that require the highest level of attention and fastest response time. During his inaugural, 12-hour shift, he received eight calls, four of them being red and three involving patients with cardiac issues. As we speak over the phone to bridge the distance between Ōtautahi and Pōneke, he remembers how daunting those initial trips were. Fortunately, he was paired with an experienced paramedic and EMT, so he wasn't alone. Still, he was about to encounter people at their most vulnerable state, and he had been training hard in order to provide them with assistance.

When I asked Ben how he navigates treating people during their most vulnerable moments, he shared a valuable piece of advice he received when starting his job. He can't recall who gave him this advice, but it was along the lines of, "patients may not remember what you did for them, but they will always remember how you made them feel." This mantra is something that Ben holds dear. He emphasizes that even if a call may not be labeled as an emergency, it could still be the worst medical situation the patient has ever experienced. While the organization provides a framework for first responders to follow, these skills must be learned and developed over time—especially when it comes to mental health calls that may be difficult to relate to. In these cases, Ben relies on treating people with kindness, compassion, and respect. He believes in reassuring patients and making them feel safe; after all, the ambulance is there to help. He also tries to find common ground with patients to establish a connection and comfort them during their time of need.

Maintaining a clear boundary between his work at Hato Hone St John and his personal life is no issue for Ben. He makes sure not to discuss any patient or case outside of work, but he knows he can always count on his colleagues for support during tough times. During his time as a recruit volunteer, there was always someone more experienced present to provide clinical oversight/leadership. Additionally, new members are provided with comprehensive training on managing stress during their induction period. Regular and extensive counseling sessions are also available for volunteers, with the option to see a trained therapist if needed—all confidential and free of charge, as part of the services offered by Hato Hone St John.

Although it may seem overwhelming for students to balance volunteering with the ambulance service and their studies, Ben wants to make it clear that it is achievable. As an engineering student at Hato Hone St John, he completed his undergraduate degree with honors while also volunteering with the ambulance service. He believes there is a misconception that one needs years of training or a specific degree to work on an ambulance or treat patients, when in reality, basic life-saving skills can be learned for free over the course of eight months by volunteering with Hato Hone St John. This is manageable even while studying, as shifts can be scheduled every other week or so. For Ben, volunteering was enjoyable and did not feel like a burden on his education; rather, it was a fulfilling activity to engage in.

During our conversation, I asked Ben for advice on someone interested in volunteering but unsure about committing to it. He explained that it can be difficult to know what career path will truly resonate with you when you're young. That's why Hato Hone St John’s flexibility is so attractive; there's no pressure to make a lifelong commitment. If the field of paramedicine captures your interest, give it a try. Many successful paramedic/EMT’s started with an unrelated undergraduate degree before switching to bachelor of health science because they found it fulfilling. Ben also knows a colleague who switched from engineering to paramedicine during their final year of college. A common misconception about the job is that it's all adrenaline and life-saving situations. In reality, in Ben's experience only 14% of the work involves those scenarios. A lot of the workload is addressing general complaints or social issues like patients struggling to care for themselves or follow medication plans. Ambulance Officers also play a crucial role in providing support and guidance to patients, connecting them with appropriate medical resources or pathways.

I wasn't sure what to expect when speaking with Ben. As someone studying engineering in Ōtautahi, I didn't think we had much in common. However, our conversations about the social aspects of his work and his passion for leading with kindness and empathy helped me connect with him. In our numerous phone calls while working on this article, there was one message that Ben continually emphasized: anyone can do this job. With free training and education provided by Hato Hone St John and the ability to choose your own workload and shifts, volunteers hold the cards. One thing that became clear during our discussions is how much Ben cares about his volunteer work and the impact it has on people's lives. It's admirable to see such dedication, and he wants to make it known that anyone can also make a difference by volunteering. All it takes is a laptop or phone, visiting the Hato Hone St John website, and submitting an application.


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