Maungaturoto’s Simon Townsend has saved countless lives in his 30 year career as a paramedic and first aid teacher. Since leaving Gore where he grew up, he has worked the busy beats of Auckland CBD, trained the Prime Minister’s bodyguards and taken many Mahurangi residents through their first aid qualifications. He spoke to Jonathan Killick …
My mother was a nurse and our family always had a passion for medicine. When I was 14, there was a terrible car accident down the road and a guy walked several kilometres to our farmhouse to get help. His mate had gone through the windshield. I had often dealt with injured animals on the farm, so I decided to do my best to help. It took 40 minutes for the ambulance to arrive and, when it did, the medic said she didn’t know how we’d managed to keep the boy alive. She was impressed by my handling of the situation and suggested I do a first aid course and volunteer for St John.
I started as a volunteer in 1989 and then was employed by St John in 1996. One day, there was an incident where a girl had been assaulted and thrown through a glass window at her 21st birthday party. We contacted Gore Hospital on the radio, but they told us to go to Invercargill. We turned up there anyway and a doctor came out to help, but he couldn’t get the IV drip in so we headed for Invercargill. The girl was dying and I didn’t think she would make it.
What we didn’t know was that an off-duty paramedic in Invercargill, who couldn’t sleep, had been listening to the radio chatter. He got into an old retired ambulance with his kit and raced up to meet us halfway. By that time we had been doing 30 minutes of CPR – in modern times we would have already called it. The paramedic lifted her feet to the roof to get her blood back to her core and successfully inserted two IV lines. A short time later, her heart restarted spontaneously. We rushed to Invercargill’s Kew Hospital, and it was like a scene out of MASH, with doctors and nurses waiting for us in the ambulance bay. For that girl, it was as close to the wire as it gets. Nobody gets closer to death than that. Weeks later, I couldn’t believe it when I saw her in the main street. I was sure she was gone.
I completed my basic paramedic training in 2002 and was transferred to Nelson. While there, I responded to a bad car crash in which a driver took a corner too fast and hit a wall. One of the three girls in the back was a teenager. She was wearing her seatbelt across her lap and bore the brunt of the impact on her stomach. Due to her cultural upbringing, she had been taught not to speak to men, so when I asked her how she felt, she just said she was fine.
I could sense something wasn’t right and I wanted to give her an IV, but she refused and my superior said it wasn’t justified. The girl went pale and vomited and I knew things were more serious than they appeared. In that moment, I grabbed the girl and put in the IV unconcerned about any official consequences because I could see that the girl was going to die. By the time my superior had stopped the ambulance, the patient had passed out. They pulled up her t-shirt and found she was bleeding internally. Several weeks later I was teaching a first aid course at a school. I walked down the hallway and there, like a ghost standing in front of me, was the girl. She said to the principal, “This is the man.” The girl won an essay contest with her account of her near-death experience and the paramedic who saved her. The surgeons at the hospital had had difficulties getting an IV into her collapsed veins and they explained to her how lucky it was that mine had been successfully inserted so early.
A senior staff member encouraged me to work in Auckland and attend AUT University to take my skills to the next level. I worked at Pitt Street station, which is the busiest ambulance station in New Zealand, where we could get 10 to 15 calls a day. With no time for breaks, it was like working in the trenches. I spent six years in the big city before deciding to move to Warkworth. At times I was “single-crewed” and Warkworth residents may remember me asking them for help with their neighbour. I was always amazed by Warkworth’s community spirit and willingness to help.
But it turned out that even in Warkworth I was still getting called to priority one calls in Auckland. Somehow I was still the closest available unit. It began to take its toll. There was an incident on the North Shore where a little boy died in the middle of the night. He was feeling unwell, but the family dismissed the symptoms and decided to go to the doctor in the morning. If the family had done a first-aid course and knew what they were seeing, the outcome might have been different. I worked a long time on the boy, but he died at the scene. I went home in the early hours of the morning to give my own son a hug.
I learned back then that anyone can experience a mental illness without being “crazy”. Intelligent people can reach a point where they are not coping. When I realised that I was suffering burnout, I left the paramedic industry and decided to start a farm-stay tourism business in Kaipara Flats. We gave guests the real Kiwi experience – shearing sheep, riding horses and going on fishing charters. From the moment they stepped off the plane, they would be embedded within the family. The farm-stay won four international awards and made the cover of a tourism magazine in Japan. The trouble was, it got quiet in the winter. I was used to busy shifts in an ambulance and was not happy sitting around on a farm. Then I was approached to teach first aid to continue sharing my skills. For most of my career, I had literally been the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, arriving at the scene and finding tragedies. I decided I could be the fence at the top of the cliff, by teaching people the tips and tricks that a medic uses. Over the last five years, I have taught first aid in workplaces and trained Police, Coastguard, Search and Rescue and DOC. I was asked to train Jacinda Ardern’s bodyguards. They said if they ever had to save the PM or international diplomats, it was essential to have learned from real-life experience.
At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, I got a call from Dr Lance O’Sullivan, who asked me to go to Kaitaia. He said if Covid arrived in the north, it would be devastating for its low socio-economic community. In the Far North, they only have 60 per cent of the GPs they need and the system would be at risk of collapsing. Lance had the vision to use paramedics to create an alternative health system. We set up campervans in parking lots and let anyone come and get a Covid test and get checked if they were feeling unwell. A young man came in with an abscess the size of a golf ball on his arm. Dr Lance asked him why he hadn’t got it checked out. “I’ve got no money, boss,” the boy said. His parents were gone and he was living in a tent, selling possum skins to get by.
Living in rural communities for much of my life, I have been reminded again and again that, when it comes to first response, a community solution is needed for a community problem. On the way back from Kaitaia, I chanced upon a 78-year-old farmer near Kaikohe who had been stuck under a rolled tractor for several hours in the sun. The ambulance was delayed that day, so he was just lucky that we were there to help him until a rescue helicopter arrived. There have been several incidents in Warkworth where past students have helped to keep a person alive.
Recently, one of my students from a Community Patrol helped a man in cardiac arrest. They were able to locate a defibrillator from the vet and performed CPR. It took over an hour for the ambulance to arrive – if nobody had stepped in the man could have died. We need as many everyday people as possible to take a course and learn the basics of CPR and resuscitation, in case they need to save their friends, family or co-workers. You cannot rely on the thought that there is an ambulance around the corner, because it might not be available.