Intensive Care Paramedic Paul Reeves is responsible for thousands of square kilometres in Central Australia. Picture: Chloe Erlich
Intensive Care Paramedic Paul Reeves is responsible for thousands of square kilometres in Central Australia. Picture: Chloe Erlich

Extreme Medics: Australia’s most courageous first-responders

The threat of violence is ever present. Every day, it stalks the brave men and women of the St John's Critical Response Unit where many patients are affected by alcohol, drugs or both.

They have been punched, kicked and dragged out of their ambulances but it doesn't deter these tireless paramedics from trying to save the lives of those they've been called to help.

"If there's drink, that changes the behaviour towards us so to go into a place where you have hostility and you are confined within four walls while providing treatment with limited exits … is difficult, dangerous and should be avoided without police escort," Paul Reeves said.

But it's not the only danger. Alice Springs is surrounded by four searing deserts - they are hot, dry, isolated, perpetually unforgiving and deadly. They each present an exceptional set of challenges few first-responders face anywhere else in the world.

Paramedic Paul Reeves in Alice Springs. Picture: Chloe Erlich
Paramedic Paul Reeves in Alice Springs. Picture: Chloe Erlich

 

Paramedic Caitlin Little. Picture: Australian Catholic University
Paramedic Caitlin Little. Picture: Australian Catholic University

Reeves is the only qualified Intensive Care Paramedic (ICP) in Alice Springs.

He is training and mentoring his younger colleague Caitlin Little.

Caitlin, 28, has been seriously assaulted three times since she started work as a paramedic in the Alice four years ago. The first time, she was punched by a drunk man while on the ground trying to resuscitate his father.

"Those ones are frustrating because 'now you've assaulted the emergency workers and now we have to retreat'," she said.

"Now there's nothing more you can do for this man, who's not breathing and now he is dead.

"Whether or not he would have died without input I'm not sure, but that was hard for me."

The second time, on New Year's Eve in 2015, was horrific. It was the early hours of the morning and her crew had been dispatched to a routine job for a woman with breathing difficulties. Caitlin was working with a new graduate Emily, who had just started.

They treated the female patient in the ambulance before agreeing for her to go back inside to get her house keys. Moments later she ran out screaming her partner was going to kill her.

"Once she came running out distressed she jumped into the back of the ambulance," Caitlin recalled.

"I was trying to reach over to put the seatbelt on the patient because I knew we were about to accelerate out of there.

"Emily shut the door on us and raced around to the driver's seat. We were about to speed out of there when he reached open the door and grabbed me and pulled me out."

The patient's partner was a large Maori man. He was in a drug psychosis from using ice.

"I was thrown on to the ground, up against the ambulance and then into the ambulance," Caitlin continued.

The man then chased Caitlin and Emily through a town camp until police arrived in just six minutes. The man escaped and fled to the Kimberley's before resurfacing a few years later.

He was extradited to Darwin, taken to court and sentenced to six months in jail.

"That was a good outcome for me because I'd never really been able to have closure from that event and I felt a responsibility because I had a very junior grad with me.

"The hardest part for me, wanting to protect her."

Alice Springs Hospital is located in the middle of the Central Australian township. Photo: Emma Murray
Alice Springs Hospital is located in the middle of the Central Australian township. Photo: Emma Murray

Like Caitlin, Paul has also been assaulted while on duty. Last year, he was flagged down by a distraught and panicked woman. She ran in front of his vehicle on a quiet stretch of road.

As he braked, he spotted another car at the roadside as the distressed woman grabbed at his door handle shouting: "He's going to kill me!"

Paul got out of his vehicle to help as man started chasing her around the stationary vehicles, screaming threats. Meanwhile, the other car's two occupants, who came across the woman being beaten in the street and had bravely stopped to try to help her, had now locked themselves inside their own vehicle. The man then ran over the roof of their new car as the woman darted around, trying to escape him, hysterical.

Paul requested police backup and started shouting commands at the man in an attempt to gain control and de-escalate the situation but the man remained intent on catching the woman.

"Everybody's adrenaline was pumping and despite being in many hostile situations in my career before, the one thing I've learnt is never to underestimate how quickly situations can become lethal and out of control," Paul said.

The man ran into the bushes before returning with rocks and a heavy stick.

He was screaming and started throwing rocks at Paul and the woman, who was cowering behind his uniform.

"He moved in with a clear intent to harm and I stepped forward into a situation nobody willingly wants to be in," Paul said.

"He raised his arm at me and I took him off balance and pinned him to the ground."

Paramedic Caitlin Little chats to colleagues outside their Alice Springs station. Picture: Australian Catholic University
Paramedic Caitlin Little chats to colleagues outside their Alice Springs station. Picture: Australian Catholic University

He was still screaming abuse and fighting to break free.

"I knew that no matter what I couldn't allow him to get free," he said.

"My mind was also on his medical status as it was apparent that he was under the influence of at least one substance."

St John's duty officer and police soon arrived and took the offender into custody.

"Fortunately nobody was hurt and the woman was now safe with thanks to the bravery of the bystanders who first stopped to help," he added.

The man, who had a domestic violence order against him at the time, was sentenced to three months' jail for breaching the DVO and attacking an emergency worker.

The St John's annual report in 2016-17 revealed one in six Territorians used their ambulances, triple-0 received 51,970 calls, their ambulances transported 38,255 patients and they attended to 52,581 cases.

This is the life of a paramedic in the Northern Territory - it's tough, dangerous, exhausting, challenging, rewarding but ultimately life saving. These are the untold stories of courage, compassion, dedication, resilience and inspiration of a caring group of remarkable and selfless first-responders in two of the toughest towns in Australia.

The St John’s Critical Response Unit covers thousands of square kilometres in one of Australia’s most remote and harshest regions. Picture: Australian Catholic University
The St John’s Critical Response Unit covers thousands of square kilometres in one of Australia’s most remote and harshest regions. Picture: Australian Catholic University


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