For more than 40 years, Ballarat man Stephen Ford turned out to help patients on what was often the worst days of their lives.
He attended all types of medical and traumatic emergencies - from chest pain to collapses, traffic accidents and burns. Though there were also some happier outcomes, such as delivering about 20 babies - including twins.
After leaving school, Mr Ford worked at a bank for three years. With an initial interest in becoming a radiographer, the long waiting list steered him onto a different path.
Aged 21, he applied to be part of the Ambulance Service and "never looked back".
Attracted to a career in paramedicine and the role he could play to help people, he commenced his training in the early 1970s, with staff training number 387.
In the early years of his career he worked in the northern suburbs of Melbourne as well as several city branches. Through this work the self-described "naive 21-year-old" learnt more about life.
Noting that he had a fairly sheltered childhood, he said the job revealed the scope of which people could behave and respond, including to those who were there to help them.
"You grow up very quickly", he said, adding that the job was a "whole new ball game".
After four years on the road, Mr Ford completed further training - the Mobile Intensive Care Ambulance (MICA) course in 1980 - when there were only six units across the state.
This week, on September 9, MICA celebrates 50 years of service to the community.
"I wanted to make a difference," Mr Ford said. "There were things MICA could do in those days that general duties couldn't," noting some examples of being able to carry medication and the care MICA paramedics could provide for heart and respiratory conditions.
As Mr Ford worked out of the western suburbs as a MICA paramedic, heroin was flowing on the streets and he attended a "phenomenal" amount of shootings, stabbings and severe bashings to treat patients leading him to question why it was happening.
Mr Ford worked on several other road MICA units before he was rostered to work on the Air Ambulance helicopters, based out of Essendon, in 1986.
At that time the helicopters were run in conjunction with Victoria Police, so one of the police helicopters was "decked out as a fully fledged MICA unit".
"You would respond to both medical emergencies and police jobs as well," Mr Ford said.
"You would be working with police members on a helicopter and fly out to the job, wherever it was, treat the patient and continue treatment provided by the local crews and transport them, usually to the Alfred, Royal Melbourne or Royal Children's Hospital."
He was part of a team of four paramedics working out of Essendon, with another Air Ambulance based at Traralgon.
With only a handful of people in the team, Mr Ford said it was "pretty full on and quite demanding", especially the role of transporting medically and time critical trauma patients in the air.
He worked with the Air Ambulance for seven years, during which time he responded to a plethora of incidents right across the state.
"When you turn up to work at 7am, you don't know where you will be at 8am. You could be halfway to Albury or the Dandenongs and landing on a road somewhere," Mr Ford said.
Responding to major incidents
One of the biggest incidents he responded to in his career was a deliberately lit fire in the high-security Jika Jika unit of Melbourne's Pentridge Prison in 1987.
When receiving the call, he remembers the communications centre asking if the helicopter could be landed inside the prison.
"All we knew was that there'd been a significant fire at the maximum security section and that there were multiple patients in cardiac arrest," he explained.
All we knew was that there'd been a significant fire at the maximum security section and that there were multiple patients in cardiac arrestStephen Ford
"I remember we had a very quick response time because it was a short flight from Essendon.
"We landed in one of the divisions next to Jika, which was very heavily secured by corrections and Victoria Police."
It was the first time a MICA flight paramedic had landed inside a prison.
Once the fire was brought under control he was able to begin helping to treat patients, with several prisoners and security guards injured as a result of the fire, and multiple patients in cardiac arrest.
"We got directed around to an area outside Jika, basically outside the front door, where there were multiple cardiac arrests being dealt with by other ambulance crews and other MICA units there," he said.
Mr Ford described the incident as "frightening" and "full-on" and said he was at the scene for a few hours. Five inmates died as a result of the fire.
"I can still picture being in there. It was confronting and scary," Mr Ford said.
Another incident which has stuck in his mind occurred more recently, when he was working on a single-response MICA unit in Horsham.
He had fallen asleep after a long shift when he was woken by a call just before midnight, asking him to respond to an incident at Mt Arapiles.
A man was stuck in a crack in a very large rock, which had been dubbed the 'squeeze test', near the camping site.
Mr Ford said the man had made it most of the way through but had slipped and then become stuck.
"We got out there and he was in extreme pain and was in and out of consciousness," Mr Ford said.
The man was stuck in the rock for about 10 hours while emergency crews, including police, SES and CFA rescue, worked in the pouring rain to come up with a solution to free him - and all options were on the table.
"We could only see the base of his feet, the top of his head and one arm. We couldn't see anything else. He was jammed well in there," Mr Ford said.
In the end it was the ingenious thinking of police search and rescue officers who collected vegetable oil from campers, using it to squirt the man and eventually resulting in him being pulled free.
The man had lost consciousness an hour beforehand, with paramedics planning to place him in an induced coma to airlift him to hospital - but he woke up just in time.
Being at the scene for 12 hours, it was the longest job Mr Ford responded to in his career.
Another job he distinctly remembers was an attempted murder, in the form of a bombing, at a residential address. Paramedics couldn't reach the patient straight away but they did survive.
"People may have the view that an ambulance takes the call, turns up and takes a patient to hospital but it's not as straightforward as that.
People may have the view that an ambulance takes the call, turns up and takes a patient to hospital but it's not as straightforward as that.Stephen Ford
"There's a lot of caregiving, thinking, planning and management. It's not always easy to get people in and out of houses or cars," Mr Ford said, adding paramedics worked closely with other emergency services at incident scenes.
"You can be working in confined spaces where you're crumpled up for two hours in a ball in a car or building."
With every job different, Mr Ford said paramedics often needed to "think outside the square", with a variety of jobs where they are required to think on their feet to come up with a solution. .
The MICA paramedic was relocated from Melbourne to Ballarat in 1993 and completed various roles here: clinical education, as a clinician at ESTA and also managed paramedics for almost 10 years.
"It has been an extensive career in terms of working in different levels of the organisation. People often say I've seen it all but I haven't - you don't see everything."
He retired in 2019 after almost 43 years on the job, with the intention to start enjoying more time with his wife and family.
Mr Ford noted several major changes in the sector during his decades on the job - from the training paramedics now receive to the vehicles they work out of and the medicine they are able to give before transporting patients to hospital. There are also more females in the workforce.
He also witnessed the expansion of Air Ambulance Victoria, which he said ensured the best possible care could be provided to everyone in Victoria.
The organisation also developed a peer support system after the Russell street bombing in 1986, to support paramedics' mental health.
Milestone MICA anniversary
Australia's first MICA service, and only the third in the world, commenced operations in a converted Dodge vehicle on September 9,1971, paving the way for the world-class pre-hospital care Victorians experience today.
Being part of MICA for 39 of its 50 years was "pretty good" and Mr Ford said the changes over the years were "phenomenal" and would continue to happen.
There are now 600 MICA paramedics working across the state, including in the air ambulance response, providing lifesaving care.
"The advent of MICA brought coronary care and intensive care into the streets, homes and workplaces of Victorians who needed urgent medical help," Ambulance Victoria Chief Executive, Professor Tony Walker, said.
"Rather than rushing patients to hospital, MICA brought hospital level care to them with ambulance officers able to provide ground-breaking treatment such as defibrillation for patients in cardiac arrest."
He said today's MICA paramedics were highly skilled clinicians who performed treatments such as advanced airway management, managed complex head injuries and cardiac conditions and treated life-threatening chest injuries.
"Year on year MICA has continued to deliver even better care to the community. It has saved the lives of countless patients across the state and touched the lives of many more.
"There are people alive today because our MICA paramedics did extraordinary things in extraordinary circumstances to deliver fantastic care," Mr Walker said.
"As we celebrate 50 years of MICA, we thank the pioneering ambulance officers, doctors and administrators for their vision, dedication and determination."
Year on year MICA has continued to deliver even better care to the community. It has saved the lives of countless patients across the state and touched the lives of many more. There are people alive today because our MICA paramedics did extraordinary things in extraordinary circumstances to deliver fantastic careAmbulance Victoria Chief Executive, Professor Tony Walker
For those considering a career as a paramedic, Mr Ford said qualities including resilience, respect, honesty, being able to think quickly on your feet, being yourself but open to self-improvement were vital.
While he responded to a lot of mentally anguishing jobs, he also had a lot of successes. He said each and every patient had their own story to tell and he was honoured to have met and helped so many people in their time of need.
"It's nice to catch up with people occasionally - a month down the track when they've come out of ICU and they're sitting up talking, when you last saw them they were near death or clinically dead. You get a boost when you see those patients."
Along with teaching new paramedics at Australian Catholic University several times a week, he is also administering COVID vaccinations at The Mercure.
In all his years treating patients, coronavirus is the biggest health crisis he has ever seen.
"It's all hands on deck with this - we've just got to get these vaccinations done."
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