First on the Scene

First on the Scene

05 December 2014

Confronted with a motorcyclist with two broken legs, the last thing you’d expect a 15 year old to do is respond in a calm and controlled manner – unless they’re Miriam Russell. “I was at the Mallala Speedway and this guy was flying around a bend at a very high speed. He was thrown off his bike and slid straight into the barrier,” the St John Ambulance volunteer says. “He pretty much shattered his legs, and as we cut off his boots, his ankle was only attached by skin – it was flopping about big time.” It sounds horrendous, but thanks to the calm assistance of Miriam, the rider was able to return to the bike and was racing again six months later.

Miriam, now 24, is one of the 876 adult volunteers in South Australia. They come from all walks of life and commit to an ongoing program of training and accreditation. St John Ambulance Australia has been around for more than 130 years, and is dedicated to helping people in sickness, distress, suffering or danger. They are the country’s leading supplier of first aid services and training, and have 786 cadets (8 to 18 year olds) and 402 community care volunteers (who help the elderly and disabled).

Miriam and her six siblings have all been volunteers, but Miriam has clocked up 14 years of service. She was just 10 years old when she first signed up. “At that age you learn basic first aid like bandaging. By 11, I began attending local fêtes, handing out bandaids, and as I grew in age and experience I was able to start going to events at the Entertainment Centre and the footy.” From the age of 14 or so, volunteers begin attending larger events where they generally work in pairs to attend to people who require medical help. If needed, they bring them to the medical centre, and if they require further support, the ambulance officers take over. The warmer months are the busiest times, between October and April. This is when Miriam is on hand for the rev-heads at the Clipsal 500, the sporting fans at Adelaide Oval, families at the Christmas Pageant, enthusiastic teens at schoolies and all of those New Year’s Eve celebrations, and then those paying their respects at April ANZAC ceremonies. Out of all of them, Miriam enjoys schoolies the most. “We go to Victor Harbor with a fantastic team and perform our duties in a great environment – the kids are all there enjoying themselves,” Miriam says with a laugh. She recounts a time when a young and heavily intoxicated man had the St John team up and learning a dance he had choreographed. But while it can be entertaining, Miriam admits schoolies is also the most challenging. “We can end up with a heap of patients in a very short period of time,” she says. “There could be 20 patients in bed, all in one go, and then a whole bunch of people sitting down with injuries. It’s a very fast-paced environment.”

The Adelaide Oval has proven to be another interesting site: from delivering babies (well almost, it was a false alarm) and dealing with passionate sport supporters experiencing chest pains to handling the drunk and disorderly. “One guy came in with a burn on the top of his leg, almost near his bottom, and it was in the shape of an iron. We got about five different stories – one involving a play fight where his friend threw the iron at him. And then he claimed that he tried to iron his pants. It can be pretty entertaining working with drunk people.”

One of her most recent call-outs was a shocking reality check. Miriam was the first to attend to Adelene Leong, the girl who died when she was thrown from the Airmaxx 360 at the Royal Adelaide Show this year. She and the team did everything they could, but it was never going to make a difference. A tragic experience, but Miriam deals with it by focusing on why she stays with St John. “The reason we volunteer, the reason we’re there, is so patients are able to get every chance of survival,” Miriam says. The lifesaving skills, plus the qualities of

leadership and remaining composed in such stressful situations, that Miriam has gained through St John have also taken her to her day-job. She is intensive care nurse at the Royal Adelaide Hospital. “You need experience to be able to hone those skills, something I’ve gained at St John. No one else my age has those skills.” She’s not bragging – she’s already a senior nurse within her unit. It’s these leadership qualities that have allowed Miriam to also ‘save the lives’ of underprivileged children who take part in the St John Youth Development Program once a week. They learn CPR, general first aid, leadership, communication and problem solving. “I’ve worked with a number of kids – those from low socio-economic areas to others being bullied

– where it’s made a huge difference to their lives. They find their feet and really grow because they’re given the opportunity to learn.” Since joining St John, Miriam has had a taste of it all – think-on-your-feet first aid, youth development and the clinical side of things – but what keeps her coming back for more? “I love the variety, the people I work with and the fact that you can attend a call and be presented with absolutely anything,” Miram says. So, next time you’re at an public event, take a look as you pass by the St John Ambulance station. You might just find Miriam there, saving lives.

Aspire magazine, December 2014.