‘If they say run, run!’ Ominous warning for journey into the night
IT WAS an ominous warning: "If they say run, run!"
Tennant Creek's St John's station manager and the town's only Intensive Care Paramedic Michelle briefed me before the New Year's Eve shift.
She wasn't joking.
Her ominous advice was almost tested during our first call-out to an Aboriginal community about 75km out of town at 9.30pm on New Year's Eve.
When the call came through I grabbed my bag and waited in the dark on the footpath outside my house, tiptoeing around the shards of broken glass bottles lining most streets in Tennant.
Paramedic Larrissa Jennion, who lives just around the corner, picked me up a couple of minutes later. Her colleague Zoe Whittaker, a 28-year-old new recruit who started two months ago, was in the driver's seat.
The job was a code two - no lights and sirens but a high priority, requiring a quick response.
We were soon heading south on the Stuart Highway, into the darkness and away from mobile phone reception. About an hour later we turned on to a dirt road.
We had to yell to speak to each other as the ambulance rattled across 5km of heavily corrugated gravel to the camp. As we reached the houses at about 10.30pm, camp dogs descended on our vehicle, barking and chasing it.
We didn't have the patient's name, only a lot number. The woman had called from a payphone and had said, "yes" - as is often the case - when the call centre operator asked if she had "shortness of breath".
Larrissa wound down the passenger window and asked residents if they could point us in the right direction.
"Happy New Year," she said cheerily to break the ice. "Did you call an ambulance?"
No, no one had called, they said.
We followed the only road into the camp, among the houses, in search of the patient.
As dozens of dogs chased the ambulance, we heard a thud. A camp dog had been whacked by the ambulance mudflap while trying to bite it but fortunately was uninjured.
Most houses were dark but people were outside in their yards.
As the road curled around we pulled up out the front of a house where dozens of people were gathered. Teen boys were running around with plastic water guns while a man was laying in the middle of the driveway but didn't require an ambulance.
Still, no one knew who had called triple-0.
We slowly drove further on until finally we saw a woman wave us over and march purposefully towards the ambulance with a sleeping baby on her shoulder and a plastic bag filled with Huggies nappies.
As the ambulance pulled up Leticia (not her real name) made straight for the side door and climbed inside without even being asked. Once inside the paramedics began assessing her but within a minute an older woman - the patient's mother in law - approached the ambulance trailed by a gaggle of teenage boys.
"What's wrong with her?" she demanded.
"We're not sure, that's what we're here to find out," said Larrissa in a friendly tone.
The patient, who looked downcast, refused to look at the "aunty" protesting at the ambulance door. Instead she tightly hugged her sleeping baby and stared at the wall.
"What's she saying to you?" the woman again demanded of Larrissa.
"I have to ask that you give us some privacy here so that we can talk to the patient and get the story from her," she replied firmly.
"What story? What happened to her? There's no story!" the woman countered.
"Nothing happened to her," Larrissa said.
"She just doesn't feel very well so we're trying to work out why."
The woman wasn't backing down.
"Well there was nothing going on here tonight," she added.
"There was no fighting here tonight. Everyone was sleeping. You need to know that sometimes women lie about their husbands. My son has been sleeping,"
It appeared Larrissa had heard enough.
"OK, we need some privacy now," she said as she closed the ambulance door and the woman stormed off into the darkness.
Larrissa returned to the patient and began assisting Zoe, who was taking the patient's blood pressure. I sat wedged on a spare seat between the patient and the paramedics, near the ambulance door, amazed her baby was sleeping through the commotion and beneath the bright ambulance lights.
A couple of minutes later the door was yanked open from the outside. It was the patient's partner. He was covered in fresh fingernail scratches down his face, neck and chest.
"What's wrong with her? What's she saying?" he asked.
"What are you doing?" he yelled at her.
The man leaned into the ambulance to see how many people were inside. He
then tried to push his way in but Larrissa stood up and blocked his way, ordering him out.
I pulled out my phone to call the police but there was no reception. The ambulance was equipped with a satellite phone but Zoe and Larrissa would have to get out to use it.
The man continued yelling "there's nothing wrong with her!" and appeared to become more aggressive. Larrissa, an experienced medical professional but a reasonably new paramedic, took control of the situation. An older man appeared beside the ambulance and Larrissa asked him to pull the partner away from the vehicle.
He did but the woman's partner kicked the ambulance as he was pulled away.
Larrissa slammed the door shut but couldn't lock it from the inside so I held it closed while she almost somersaulted over the stretcher and out the back door, dashed around the side and into the driver's seat. She activated the automatic locks and sped off down the road where they could stop to safely continue treatment.
About a kilometre up the road, we pulled off the road and Larrissa climbed into the back of the ambulance.
The 32-year-old had worked in Tennant Creek since May and had only graduated from being an intern herself last January while working in Alice Springs. Regardless, she operated impressively under pressure and communicated with her patients with ease.
Larrissa has been punched in face by a drunken patient before but for Canberra-born Zoe, this was her first exposure to violence.
"Leticia, has something else happened tonight?" she turned her focus to the sheepish patient.
"Have you been assaulted? Have you been arguing with your partner?"
Leticia said no.
"He hasn't hurt you at all? Are you sure?" Larrissa said.
"Because we can check you over if he's hurt you. You can tell us. We're not the police."
Leticia conceded something had happened as she was trying to go to sleep.
"He didn't hurt me or anything, he only just ripped my shirt, that's all," Leticia offered.
Zoe continued assessing the patient, applying a heart rate monitor and doing a blood prick test, as Leticia popped the stirring baby on to her breast.
"Is that what made you short of breath? Being scared?" Larrissa asked
The 33-year-old mother admitted she had called the ambulance because she felt unsafe but would not answer questions about the fight with her partner. She appeared to become agitated and seemed to change her mind about going to Tennant Creek.
She informed Larrissa said she had left another bag inside the house, which contained her BasicsCard (a card used by people who are income managed) and money that she wanted to bring. It was explained it wasn't safe for the ambulance to return to the house.
"Leticia I'm not driving back in there, he was getting too aggressive for us" Larrissa said.
"You saw him trying to rip the ambulance open. That's not safe for us."
At our unwillingness to return, her demeanour changed.
"F**king hell! Drive back down this road!" she ordered.
Their clinical assessment determined no injury or illness but the crew's preference was to transport her to Tennant Creek because of their concern for her safety.
Zoe reiterated we wanted to take her to hospital but that we could not go back to the house for the bag. She then lamented she didn't have clothes for the baby.
Larrissa reassured her that the hospital could provide babywear.
"It's not safe for us to go back in there and we don't think it's safe for you but we can't force you to come with us to hospital," Larrissa said.
Leticia complained: "Oh my god. Just drive down here a bit."
The paramedics calmly refused.
Growing concerned about lingering too long, the paramedics pressed Leticia on what she'd like to do. She said she needed someone to accompany her to hospital. When we asked whom that person was she said, "I don't know".
Again she told Larrissa to drive back towards the house but she flatly refused.
"I'll drive you back to the (community) entrance but I won't drive back to that house," Larrissa conceded.
"But if you're concerned and don't feel safe then I don't think you should stay here either."
Leticia then claimed we were being followed and she could see people walking past the ambulance. Larrissa tried to reassure Leticia there was no one outside and that no one could see her in the ambulance.
The paramedics told her she was free to leave but we couldn't drive back to the house because they were concerned for their safety. She said she needed to give the baby - who she was breastfeeding as she spoke - to someone before she could go to Tennant Creek.
The paramedics exchanged looks, neither was comfortable leaving the infant behind.
In a last-ditch attempt to persuade Leticia to bring her baby and come to hospital, the paramedics offered a compromise.
They were willing to wait in the same spot for 10 minutes while she retrieved her bag.
"Drive back down that road! If I walk from here the dogs will bite me," Leticia claimed.
She swore again and then got out. Instead of walking in the direction of her house, she walked back in the direction of the house where her partner was staying. We manoeuvred the ambulance to a better position where we could get satellite reception and make a quick exit if needed. It provided an opportunity to update the communication centre via satellite.
Secured in our new position, we lingered with the engine running for 20 minutes, not wanting to leave without her. We spotted her walk outside a house into the light about 200m away and yelled out to get her attention but she shook her head at us and walked back inside.
These are the untold stories of courage, compassion, dedication, resilience and inspiration of a caring group of remarkable and selfless first-responders in two of the toughest towns in Australia.