Dealing with tragedy, raw grief, blood and gore is just part of the job for a paramedic. Thank God they can do what they do every day. By Kate Holden.

There in a crisis

She knows what you want to ask, what you’re trying to find a polite way of asking. How do you cope with— What made you think you could— What, oh God, what does it look like when— She sits forward, takes out a notebook as if she’s the interviewer: “I hope you don’t mind. I made some notes.”

Strong New Zealand voice, straight blonde hair, blue eyes that fix you like bolts. If you are in a car accident, she’s the one you will want peering in at you through the broken window, saying everything’s going to be all right. As she’s held the hands of the dying elderly, the frantic scrabbling hands of young people speechless in the worst moment of their lives, as she holds someone’s hand every day in the ambulance and says, “Shh, you’ll be okay”, she’s going to hold your hand firmly and tell you how it is. 

How is it? It’s a challenging job. What makes you break? If you’ve lost a friend to suicide. If you have a daughter with an eating disorder. If your mum died of breast cancer and that’s the kind of callout you have today. “Your resilience begins to go down. Perhaps you’re cross with your kids or partner, irritable – you think it’s just because you’ve been doing shiftwork for 25 years – all of a sudden you might do one job and it’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back, and you can’t work out why you’re crying for three days and why all the dead children you’ve attended over the last 15 years are flashing through your mind. Is this what you want me to talk about?”

Yes. Yes it is. She’ll try to explain. Impossible, really. “If I went to a three-year-old who was wearing a T-shirt that was similar to one that my three-year-old wears, that would connect me.”

Three-year-olds. You can’t imagine what it is that she’s seen.

How can she do it, you want to ask. When she spends the day witnessing the body – how it collapses with illness, starves and swells, how it is puncturable, so tissue-tearable – how can she go home to her beautiful little boy and not break her heart? Does she grip him tight all evening, does she chant protections in his ears? You want to say thank-you, thank-you for doing what you do, someone has to. A quarter of the WorkCover cases in her profession are psychological: depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress. Eleven personnel have killed themselves in the past six years. The longer she works the more of an atheist she becomes. 

It’s not all drama, blood and gore. She needs you to understand that. Work is different depending on the area. Bashings and bottlings and mental health in one suburb, palliative care and breathing issues in the next. A lot of work with the elderly, a daily shift of gentle handlings and checking the fridge for food. Giving reassurances and succour. Bringing relief. They walk through doors left open, down hallways towards the sounds of distress. “You see such a layer of society that the average person doesn’t. So you can see the Vietnam War vet who’s homeless in St Kilda with mental health problems; you can see the wealthiest family with a mansion in Kooyong Road. You see people living in squalor, you see drug overdoses, you see murders, go to murder scenes…” Maybe three dead bodies a week, including positive outcomes. “With what?” you say, startled.

“Resuscitations,” she laughs. “When we bring them back.” 

She flexes and springs straight. It’s a tough job. New graduates typically last five to seven years. But there is a lot of professional care, now. Counselling, peer support, sick leave, occupational health. They can’t work if they’re ill and contagious; they shouldn’t work if they’re feeling freaked out. Her husband is in the same job: they know when to talk it out with each other; when to go and get help; when to sit in silence.  

She reassures you she’s okay. But she says, “The difference between reading it in the paper and going there is the raw grief when you tell someone that there’s nothing more we can do. When you say, ‘I’m sorry, your relative has passed.’ And that’s not contrived on a television drama program. That’s raw.” Her face wears the memory. Both hands on the table, steadying in the face of it. She can drive past houses in Melbourne today and still see the body hanging. 

They work with the dreadfulness we all must pretend will never happen. They go there for work. “It’s not just the car and the victim, but the noise, and the smells, and the screaming, and the fire brigade, and the machinery, and the breaking open of the cars. The noise, and you’re trying to – And there’s no light – Someone shine a light, because I can’t see and I’m on the side of the road and there’s no light and I’m trying to get this drip in– And there’s mud and someone screaming over there and there’s chaos…” 

At 25 she was raped at gunpoint by two soldiers in South America. She agitated through media and her member of parliament until one of them was caught. When she attends a rape victim she looks her in the eye and says, I know

But most urgently she wants to explain the privilege, the trust people put in her, the intimacy, the gentleness and the respect. She was 22 when she began working in emergency wards. Now 44; the last 12 years a paramedic. Couldn’t imagine doing anything else. “My first dead body. My first road fatality. My first ‘train versus pedestrian’ – because they’re messy. My first dead kid. My first hanging. My first aggressive patient. My first drug overdose. You tick them off.” She laughs at it. “You tick them off. Phew. And I’m okay.”

And now I say it. Thank you. Thank you for talking to me. Thank you for doing what you do every day. Thank God for you, Vanessa Cross.

Lifeline 13 11 14

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 24, 2014 as "There in a crisis".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Kate Holden is the author of The Winter Road, winner of the 2021 Walkley Book Award and the 2022 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Douglas Stewart Prize for Nonfiction.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on August 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.