After seven years in the job, Wonthaggi paramedic educator Sonny Roff-Smith still loves the challenges she faces every day. mm043117

IF YOU applied to become a female paramedic for Ambulance Victoria more than 30 years ago, you would have been knocked back.
It wasn’t until July 27, 1987 when women were allowed to become paramedics.
Twenty-five years ago, Wonthaggi’s Deb Rielly signed up for a traineeship to become an ambulance officer.
“It was truly a boys’ club in those days,” she said.
Her traineeship involved going back and forth between attending a school for ambulance officers and working in an ambulance.
“Once you were back on the road, you’d still do assignments while working and after three years, you got an exam on everything,” she said.
There was no political correctness when Deb started, each of her colleagues pulling out $10 from their pockets once she was a qualified ambulance officer.
“They said, ‘Sorry, we lost the bet, you didn’t fail’.”
In her first few years working in Sale, she recalls clocking on at 6pm and sometimes not finishing until midday the next day.
“When I started, there was a lot more accidents, and they were quite brutal.
“There wasn’t as much education as there is now so we would often go to patients with respiratory issues, we get a lot of those in winter, but there’s lots more medication out there now.”
She says people need to have some degree of toughness to be a paramedic and it was especially true when Deb started and it was a boys’ club.
“Some people wouldn’t speak to you because you’re a woman.
“It was just the way things were and they didn’t mean anything personally, it was probably just against women doing the job.
“But that changed once they got to know you.”
Being a paramedic involves thinking on your feet and often going out to jobs that involve people you know.
It can be difficult for paramedics and after Deb transferred to Wonthaggi following 10 years at Sale, she also moved to the area.
In 2003, Deb was diagnosed with breast cancer.
But she’s a fighter.
She went on to participate in seven Iron Man Triathlons and in her seventh one, she had back pain. “As paramedics do, I pushed it aside,” she said.
Deb went to the doctors after the race and was told the cancer had returned.
She kept fighting and then a year ago, a brain tumour appeared on a scan.
She’s been off work since then but is up for re-assessment this year and will hopefully be able to return to work.
“There’s been lots of support from work, colleagues calling just to keep in touch and see if I’m OK.
“Being a paramedic is really stimulating, you’ve got to think a lot and outside of the box as well,” she said.
“Not every job you get is what you’ve been told.”
The public has high expectations of paramedics and Deb often uses the Superman analogy to explain it.
“No-one knows you in the dark blue uniform, you can ask a personal question that you can’t when you’re not in uniform.
“When you’re off, you can just be yourself, you’re Clarke Kent.”
For the next generation of ambulance officers, Deb and the team at Wonthaggi pass on decades of experience to graduates such as Caitlin Leahe.
Caitlin enjoys the autonomy of the job, after studying nursing and finding it wasn’t what she wanted to do.
“I like the challenge and I want to help the community,” Caitlin said.
“It’s a lot of thinking for yourself.”
She’s done work placement in many other stations before coming to Wonthaggi.
“The full impact of shift work hits you but I got into it and I love it,” she said.
Caitlin works closely with paramedic educator Sonny Roff-Smith, who’s been in the job for seven years.
Sonny says she still has moments where a patient, particularly the elderly, will joke that she can’t lift them.
A few years ago she could, but health and safety rules prevent her from lifting them, otherwise she’d prove her patients wrong.
“I enjoy the mix of age and diversity here and we have people who’ve just graduated to some who’ve been here 30 or 40 years,” Sonny said.
“Slowly more and more females have come through and we can work part-time or have a baby and still come back.
“That never used to be the case.”
In 1988, Melissa Buckingham was the first female paramedic in regional Victoria.
A few years later and Deb was the first female paramedic in Wonthaggi.