BOOK REVIEW: Brace yourself and go on a white-knuckle ride with Australian paramedic Ben Gilmour in his travel memoir set in some of the most dangerous places on earth. It’s an eloquently-written collection of gripping tales of wild people whose lives are so different from our own that it’s hard to believe they exist. A veteran of his profession, Gilmour wanted to see the world from that perspective, so he set off to work in Thailand, Mexico, South Africa and Pakistan just to name a few locations, to write about it and make a doco.
“Despite our public attraction, the truth about us is largely hidden from view,” he writes. “We are hidden because the usual depiction of paramedics on film and television is a fantasy.”
He chose to explore the world of ambulance workers, who have diverse skills and work in equally as diverse countries, but who all share the same thrills and nightmares.
His adventure starts in rough-and-tumble outback Australia, where long, dusty roads stretch for hundreds of kilometres and it takes life-ebbing hours to get patients to hospital. Next, he went to South Africa and Johannesburg where this city makes no attempt to shed its image as one of the most dangerous places on earth. There are 52 murders each day. Many of their patients are gunshot victims, and medics are known to get caught up defending themselves in gun battles. The paramedic Ben rides with, called The Leopard, has a 9mm semi-automatic handgun in his bag and another strapped to his ankle.
In the Macedonian capital of Skopje he rides with Dr Aquarius and her sidekick chainsmoking nurse Snezhana Spazovska who has sparkling diamantes set into her teeth and “painted fingernails so long she needs five precious minutes to get them into latex gloves”.
Macadonia, writes Ben, is a guarded nation with a great suspicion of outsiders. Although it has been far more charitable to Roma gypsies than most other European countries. The country runs on an inadequate budget, which filters down to the healthcare. Public hospital doctors earn little more than 400 euros a month, and nurses even less.
And so popular is Valium for treating patients that it’s common for ambulance crews to inject one one for the patient and one for the family member. And never far away is the fiery spirit of rakija, which the medics see as their own medicinal tipple. It takes a tipsy medic to understand a tipsy vein, Dr Aquarius tells Ben.
The adventurous Australian is on a beach in Thailand when the monster tsunami hits on Boxing Day 2004, and he witnesses first-hand the many casualties of that disaster which killed hundreds of thousands. He, a New Zealand paramedic and a medical student from Ecuador make an unlikely emergency medical team who rush to the closest hospital to help treat the injured with broken limbs, deep lacerations and multiple internal injuries.
In Pakistan the equipment for ambulances is basic, and some hospitals have no government funding. Yet the tenacious will of the ambulance drivers who gather up torn apart bombing victims is heroic. The Edhi Foundation, set up in 1957, has the largest ambulance service on earth with 1600 vehicles. The founder, Abdul Sattar Edhi, now 83, has prepared over 20,000 bodies for Islamic burial, and thinks little of washing decomposed corpses and maggot-infested dead for this tender ritual.
“We cannot truly reduce suffering,”he says, until we are able to rise above our own senses.”
In cultured Venice, Ben rides a water ambulance where the medics have such a keen fashion sense they regard their vivid orange Gore-Tex vests as poor taste. They see their over-loved city as a Disneyland for tourists and almost too expensive for locals to live in. Compared to Johannesburg and Lahore, Venice is a snooze, as the old city sees few assaults or murders. Tourists faint in the heat, occasionally fall in the canals, have fatal heart attacks.
Ben also rides ambulances in Iceland, Mexico (where the medics also tote weapons for protection), England and The Philippines. He writes with profound empathy for the cultures in which he works and travels.
“…wherever it was I journeyed, my ambulance family not only showed me their way of life, they also unlocked for me the secret doors to their cities and the character of their people, convincing me that paramedics are the best travel guides one can hope to have.”
Paramedico, Adventures by Ambulance, by Benjamin Gilmour and published by Pier 9, an imprint of Murdoch Books. $A29.99
*Pictures courtesy of Ben Gilmour – thanks Ben. More info: www.paramedico.com.au