Stuart Harris Chopper Paramedic

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For most of us, it would be hard to imagine going to work, with no two days ever the same… and not only that, but knowing the lives of others depend on our skill, our courage, and our quick thinking.

Stuart Harris is a paramedic… his role with the Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service based in Tamworth means he’s in constant demand and often placed in high-pressure situations. Having personally flown around 500 missions in the chopper, Stuart is part of a vital team of nurses, doctors, engineers, fundraisers and fellow paramedics…

Hi Stuart. What originally brought you to the Tamworth area to live and work?

My fiancée and a dare! My fiancée, Alicia, and I were living in Sydney, both in a bit of a rut. An opportunity presented itself to work in Tamworth, the home of Alicia’s family. I applied, was offered the position – but then got cold feet. After talking to a couple of mates, they effectively dared me to go. Once I moved, I knew it was a good decision.

Why did you decide to train as a paramedic, and where did you complete your studies?

Throughout my schooling, I was hoping to become a veterinarian; however, as it happens, following high school, I wasn’t certain I could afford or complete the six-year university course. 

I was fortunate to play Rugby with a bloke who had become a paramedic, and he convinced me to apply.

How did you first become involved with the Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service?

Following my transfer to Tamworth in 2004, I was told there was a position for an Intensive Care Paramedic on the helicopter, so I was trained and working on it by 2005.

How many missions have you personally flown with the service?

It would be a guess, but I would estimate about 500.

Obviously, we can’t go into specific details about patients, but what’s a mission or two you’ve flown that particularly stick in your mind due to their complicated nature or mental/physical impact on you?  

Every mission, every patient, and every story is unique. 

One distinctly country mission I recall was an older chap in a rural area who, while felling trees, became trapped under a fallen tree, which broke his lower leg, arm and injured his chest. He was alone, had no phone coverage, but managed to dig his way out from under the tree over the next hour or so. 

He then got in his column shift manual utility and drove back to his home (opening and closing three gates in the journey). He took six aspirin (NOT recommended) for the pain. 

Eventually, it was the neighbour who called us, after he had been summonsed to help the injured man feed some livestock. After some convincing, he agreed to go to the hospital – but just as the aircraft’s skids were about to lift off, he frantically waved his arms. 

I called an emergency stop to proceedings, in case he was experiencing some life-threatening complication or had noticed something concerning, like fire in the engine. In fact, he merely wanted to pass another message on to his neighbour about feeding the dog.

I was also part of a large team involved in a terrible incident at Warialda in 2007, which resulted when a utility carrying seven unrestrained teenagers rolled. 

It was memorable, because of the amazing response launched by the local emergency services and hospital staff to an overwhelming incident involving some of their own. 

It is also infamous, because our helicopter suffered engine failure en route, and we ended up crashing in a field. Fortunately, in our case, no one was injured.

Run us through some stats for the helicopter service based at Tamworth specifically, roughly how many missions would it fly each year?

The workload varies seasonally and annually; however, across the bases, we fly approximately 1,400 missions a year. 

In Tamworth we fly over 400; however, the distances we travel are greater than the other two bases.

From the moment a call for help comes in, how long does it generally take for you and the crew to mobilise and get airborne?

We are called for a variety of work, including out-of-hospital incidents (primary missions), inter-hospital, and search and rescue missions. These all have different levels of planning; but, for the simpler taskings, we can be airborne within 10 minutes.

What geographic areas does the Tamworth service cover?

The key area we operate in is the north-west; however, we are a key part of the State’s Aeromedical Service, so can be tasked anywhere within the state. 

Due to interstate agreements, we regularly cross the borders as well. I have flown to patients in Bourke, Goondiwindi, Nyngan and Orange, while we have transferred patients to specialist hospitals in Brisbane and Sydney.

How many team members are on base at Tamworth, and what are their roles?

Thirty-five members of our teamwork from the base in Tamworth. Twenty four hours a day and seven days a week, you would be lucky not to find some of the hardworking marketing staff, who work tirelessly to raise funds to ensure their goal of no patient having to pay for using the aircraft. 

The engineers are available around the clock, to ensure these complex aircraft are airworthy. 

In the aircraft, our standard configuration includes a pilot, aircrew officer, doctor and paramedic.

What do you love most about your role with the Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service?

The most satisfying part of my role is supporting the rural communities, hospitals and paramedics. 

I personally enjoy working in a highly-skilled, multidisciplinary team, and I have learned so much working closely with the various professions. The nurses have helped me the most in my role.

What’s the best way for the general public to find out more about the Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service, or to make a donation?

The best way is to visit the website at:

www.rescuehelicopter.com.au

Thanks, Stuart.

Interview: Jo Robinson.

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