Who would do this? Step into a stranger's emergency and all its bloody detail, breaching the sanctity of someone else's home at their lowest point, knowing that all those people clamouring around as you work are relying on you to produce a miracle?
Who would willingly set out for work each day expecting that at least once, and probably several times on that single shift, you’ll be the first point of help in someone else’s disaster?
Even by the most conservative estimate, Paul Featherstone has done this close to 10,000 times over the course of his 35-year career as an ambulance officer.
In an industry that is largely underpaid and under-recognised, Featherstone is Australia’s best known paramedic. He is the man who comforted Stuart Diver through those terrible hours in which he lay entombed by the landslide in Thredbo in 1997. And last year, 925 metres underground, he was part of a team who talked miners Todd Russell and Brant Webb through the psychological nightmare of their entrapment until they were finally freed from deep inside the Beaconsfield mine.
At 57, Featherstone has been a crucial figure in some of the country’s most notable rescues, from the Granville train disaster to major bushfires and floods. Yet what he remembers most are the private tragedies. Of all the dramas that he has tried to salve, the domestic shootings, heart attacks, industrial accidents, car crashes, even being attacked by someone wielding a knife, it’s the very old and the very young whose impact has proven to be most enduring.
What does he remember? Returning from holidays years ago with his wife and kids, towing the family boat along a busy highway and right up to a terrible accident. A family car had collided with a truck and gone over a guard rail, sliding down an embankment and coming to rest on its roof. He remembers scrambling down to the car, realising that a family just like his own had been suddenly struck by tragedy. “I can still see the car, unsecured and moving (on its roof) and inside were a number of children all pretty much deceased, except one who had primitive breathing, just gasping for air. There was no way you could get to her.”
He remembers the tragedies of elderly people, too: “Eighty-year-olds, they’ve been married 60 years, and there’s a frantic phone call and of course when we arrive there he couldn’t wake his partner up and there’s just total disbelief that she has gone after all those years.”
Stepping into such intensely personal dramas was not something Featherstone had ever contemplated, even in early adulthood. Trained as a toolmaker, he first saw emergency services working together up close when he witnessed an industrial accident. “There was a young fella, he got his arm caught in a conveyor belt. It was one storey up and you could just see his feet hanging in the air and hear him screaming … We couldn’t do anything except shut the machine down and wait for the emergency services personnel to come,” he says. “When I saw these guys doing this at the top end of human life, I thought it would probably be interesting to have a shot at it.”
With an interest in medicine, he opted to join the ambulance service, and in 1976 was one of the first paramedics to graduate in NSW. Having since conceived and developed the service’s Special Casualty Access Team, which attends emergencies in a variety of hazardous situations, Featherstone has been trained in everything from canyoning and caving to hostage survival and mountaineering, and these days spends much of his time as a helicopter rescue paramedic.
But when it comes to what he’s known for – being one of the best listeners in the nation – there has been no formal training. What he has learnt about people, and how best to help them emotionally, comes from years of working on the street.
“At the end of the day it’s all about human faces,” he says. “We’re dealing with the highest end of the human element. Even if it’s not life and death it’s still injury, it’s still pain, it’s still psychological torment for people. A man who has a heart attack at home and he’s the breadwinner and all of a sudden he’s got these guys coming in and sticking monitors on him and putting lines in him and they’re saying: ‘I’m sorry, mister, but it looks like you’ve had a heart attack’ – all of a sudden he’s going through his head: ‘How am I going to pay the bills? I’m not going to be able to be the man that I was.’ The exacting science is knowing what drugs to give him. But the human value stuff is the art form.”
And it’s one that Featherstone has crafted well. Todd Russell, who was trapped underground for 14 days, says: “For us to be able to communicate with him, day in, day out – and he was putting it into our terms rather than a doctor or a paramedic’s terms – it helped us immensely. He gave us the confidence to find our way through it.”
But there’s also an element of intuition to what Featherstone does, a sixth sense that he says comes with working so closely with colleagues over so many years and at such high risk. And these are the people who inspire him – quiet achievers like his workmates, who spend their days achieving extraordinary feats with little acclaim, but always with the hope of a happy ending. “You do have to care,” he says. “I think most people do. I think there is more good in the world than bad; we just hear a lot of the bad. I think people don’t know what they are capable of in bad situations.”
Ultimately it is humanity – his own, and that of others – that sustains Featherstone. As he says: “The reason you’re doing it is because you’ve got to remember that the most important thing we’ve got in the world is life.”
The Australian newspaper- Fiona Harari
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