Real Life

‘It’s my job to save lives’

Alex Shulamith (27) of Wellington is an ambulance dispatcher.

Not everyone can say they’ve saved a life today but I’m lucky enough to be able to say that most days.

I’m a dispatcher at the Wellington Free Ambulance emergency call centre. We’re the only ambulance service in the Wellington region and the only free one in the country.

I trained as a chef before heading to Germany, England and Scotland for three years, where I worked as a chef and a nanny.

When I got home, I saw an advertisement for this job and it sounded interesting. I knew I didn’t want to go back to being a chef or find an office job – I wanted to do something that really made a difference.

I do 12-hour shifts and take about 80 calls a shift. Each one is different – from car crashes and stabbings to cardiac arrest and childbirth. Callers are often distressed and not thinking straight.

The calls come to us from all over the country, and it’s my job to calm people down so they can tell me what’s wrong and where they are so I can send the paramedics, if necessary.

I studied geography as part of my training and am pretty good now but sometimes I’ll ask a caller to tell me their location and they’ll say, ‘I can see some trees and a power pole’, so I’ll have to investigate to find out where they are.

One of the saddest calls I’ve ever taken was about a 15-year-old who locked himself in his bedroom and killed himself. Although it didn’t hit me straight away, the next day I broke down.

I didn’t realise how much it had affected me.

At the Wellington Free Ambulance Communications Centre, Alex receives calls about accidents or disasters from all over the region.

Some of the worst calls involve accidents that are totally preventable.

I took one call about a car crash involving a group of teenagers – two died and two were badly injured. They were going 180km and none were wearing seat belts.

It makes me angry because those people didn’t have to die and their families didn’t have to go through that.

It’s not all bad, though – we do get calls that make me smile.

Recently, someone rang to say their baby wasn’t breathing. I started giving the usual CPR instructions and later, when the crew arrived, we found out the ’baby’ was, in fact, a dog!

Late last year, I was named Dispatcher of the Year for Australasia. I got it for helping a woman perform CPR on her father-in-law after he collapsed. She was hysterical and kept screaming, ’Hurry up and get here’.

Unfortunately, he didn’t survive but we did everything we could to help him.

One thing I haven’t done is help deliver a baby over the phone. We have the instructions on how to talk someone through this process while the paramedics are on their way.

I’d love to be able to do that. My partner Polly does a similar job for the police.

Alex with her partner Polly.

It can be hard with both of us doing shift work but it’s good to have someone in my life who understands the pressures of my job.

We’ve even taken calls about the same events before!

We try not to talk shop at home but if I’ve had a good day, I’ll say, ’I saved a baby’s life today’ and we’ll talk about that.

Polly and I bought a house in Titahi Bay six months ago. We spend our time hanging out with our two rescue cats and pottering in our vege garden.

I can’t see myself moving on from Wellington Free Ambulance.

I’ve recently started a new role organising the inter-hospital transfer of patients which is interesting, but fortunately I’m still taking incoming calls.

The best thing about my job is how meaningful it is. Yes, it’s stressful but being able to help someone, or to save someone’s life, is the best feeling in the world.”

As told to Sharon Stephenson

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