There are few occupations more intense than those in the business of saving lives, and being a paramedic is no exception. In our ninth Spotlight feature, Lodge alum Wong Wun Lee shows that she is more than up to the task. Wun Lee has been a paramedic with the ambulance service in England for over four years, and her down-to-earth approach to what can be a demanding job is an illuminating and fascinating eye-opener.
After completing Form 5 at Lodge, Wun Lee moved across the world to do her A-levels in UK, where she has been based ever since. While she was still studying, an interest in First Aid led her to volunteer at St John Ambulance. It was here that she learned she could go to university and train as a paramedic. After completing a Diploma in Paramedic Science, she continued with part-time study while working full-time as a paramedic in order to earn her bachelor degree in Pre-hospital Emergency Care, and later graduated with honours.
Wun Lee has been working on frontline ambulances since qualifying as a paramedic, and she gives us some idea about what a day on the job entails:
A typical shift begins with me consuming a large dose of caffeine to get me going. I sign drugs out of the secure cupboard at the ambulance station and place it in the small safe in the ambulance. My crewmate and I then put our kit onto the ambulance and we do a quick check of the vehicle. The ambulance would have been ‘made-ready’ by the ambulance fleet assistants so it should be clean and have all the right equipment. We then book on with ambulance control via our radio handsets and wait for details of our first call. The details come through on the Terrafix computer screen and SatNav is automatically set to the destination. Between my crewmate and I, we take turns driving or attending to calls. However, if the patient is critically ill, I take clinical lead if my crewmate is of lower rank.
Working frontline means that Wun Lee responds to emergency 999 calls. An ambulance crew is typically made up of two people with different skill levels, and the paramedic is the most senior clinician on an ambulance. The scope of responsibility for a paramedic hence has to be fairly comprehensive – among other things, they need to be trained to provide advanced life support, and are qualified to administer a range of medications. In the UK, all paramedics must be registered with the Health and Care Professions Council. This also means that ‘Paramedic’ as a title is protected by law and anyone who misuses this designated title may be prosecuted.
The job is certainly physically and emotionally demanding. Most paramedic shifts are twelve hours long, though some can run for six, eight or ten hours. Night shifts are a struggle for Wun Lee, who describes it “like being permanently jetlagged”. She also makes a lot of decisions on the road, depending on the patient and their condition, and the work can vary greatly, meaning that the level of care she provides at the scene can range from dealing with life-threatening conditions to treating minor illnesses and injuries to negotiating social issues:
It’s a busy job because of the ever growing population and shortage of other healthcare professionals like doctors and nurses. I have attended patients who were ill but not able to get a doctor’s appointment, so they became more ill to the point they became an emergency. Some people do call 999 just because there were no doctor appointments available for a week. This is frustrating as it’s not an emergency call but very much a reality of the job. I can provide medical advice and if necessary, speak to a doctor or nurse for medication to be prescribed or for an appropriate home visit.
In fact, Wun Lee attends a lot of non-emergency calls, particularly from elderly people unsteady on their feet who have fallen and can’t get up themselves, or have no one to help them up: “Sometimes it can be 2am when they call because they’ve gotten out of bed to go to the toilet, stumbled and fallen. If they’ve hurt themselves badly, unfortunately it’s a trip out to hospital. If not, we help them up, tuck them back into bed and say good night.”
Dealing with distressed patients and families is part and parcel of the job, and sometimes despite their best efforts, paramedics can’t save all their patients. It’s understandable that a very difficult part of the work for Wun Lee is when she has to inform loved ones of their loss. So being able to save lives is certainly a highlight for her:
I have a letter from a patient’s neighbour thanking me and my colleagues for saving the patient’s life. He collapsed at home and was in cardiac arrest when we arrived. By the time we got him to the hospital, he had a pulse and was breathing for himself. I don’t always get to hear the eventual outcome for my patients so it was nice to receive this letter telling me that the patient was discharged from hospital and recovering at home.
What Wun Lee enjoys about being a paramedic is the wide spectrum of society she sees, and the people she encounters from all walks of life. She recalls one memorable incident when she assisted with the delivery of a baby girl in the back of the ambulance, though she jokes, “When I say assisting, it’s because the mother did all the hard work and I was there to catch the baby.” While most of the people she meets are nice and polite, she does note that some can be vile, and physical and verbal abuse are not uncommon, which is why self-defence was part of her mandatory training.
Another important element of the job is good driving skills. Given the size of the ambulance, Wun Lee had to take an additional driving test to be allowed to drive that particular size and weight vehicle. After that, she had to undertake further training and pass the test in emergency driving which allowed her to drive on blue lights. Wun Lee quips that keeping the ambulance upright is an achievement in itself; sadly it is not a formally recognized skill, whereas “if you do crash an ambulance, everyone will hear about it.”
Driving an ambulance with emergency blue lights on is not fun for the person behind the wheel: “The most difficult part is watching and anticipating other drivers on the road. Some people panic and do the strangest thing. Some people don’t seem to notice or hear a bright flashing ambulance with sirens on no matter how close I am. Some think it’s a race and will try to drive faster. It is actually quite dangerous and annoying.”
The role of a paramedic will naturally vary from country to country, and Wun Lee suggests that anyone who might be interested in the field should ride out as an observer with the local ambulance service to get a feel for the job. Good interpersonal skills are undoubtedly crucial for anyone who might want to become a paramedic. Wun Lee stresses that tact, tolerance and patience are essential when dealing with people on the job, as well as the ability to be objective; for example, “I’ve [attended] to drug addicts, and being addicted to drugs does not automatically make the person terrible. You don’t always know the whole story and it is important not to be judgmental.” The ability to stay calm under pressure and in stressful situations is also vital, and a strong stomach is an absolute must: “This is not a job for the faint of heart. Blood, guts and other bodily fluids as well as broken and even severed limbs are all part of the job.”
On a lighter note, Wun Lee appreciates good writing skills, plus good handwriting, in patient care reports: “Sometimes I have to read a patient’s medical notes and trying to decipher chicken scratch is hard work.”
In many ways, it takes a certain kind of person to be a paramedic. Wun Lee takes both the ups and downs of her job head-on, and her perseverance and determination is an inspiring example for both alumni and current Lodgians.
Written by Jane Leong
Photos courtesy of Wong Wun Lee