For most of us, being in death defying situations, abseiling down cliffs, and flying in a helicopter over the scenic Harbour Bridge are exceptionally rare occurrences in our lifetime – but for NSW Ambulance rescue helicopter paramedic Libby Hanrahan it’s all part of a days work. Every day Libby and her team put themselves at risk to help people caught in horrific situations. The Ambulance rescue helicopter service ensure that everyone can receive the care they need, even in the most remote and inaccessible areas. Her job is physically, mentally and emotionally demanding, and yet she goes back every day and gives it her all.
Who are you and what do you do?
I am Libby Hanrahan. I live in Bondi, where I spend my days swimming in the ocean, going to the gym or yoga, playing with my very cute nieces or grabbing a coffee with my partner at our local bakery. These simple pleasures are contrasted by my extreme job as a helicopter paramedic on the NSW Ambulance rescue helicopter. My job is not normal, the shifts are day and night, the skill set is complex and specialised, and what I see, hear and feel is extreme. And I love it.
What kind of training did you take to become a helicopter paramedic?
After working 13 years in various clinical and management positions as an on road paramedic I started my helicopter paramedic training. It intense year focused on three components; medical, Remote Area Access and Air Rescue Crewman training.
The medical training gave me specialist skills in critical care medicine. Between the helicopter Doctor and myself we provide world class care to our patients. The Remote Area Access training is all about abseiling, rope access and rescue, canyoning, remote medicine and survival skills. The Air Rescue Crewman training focuses on the aviation aspects of the job and includes; winching, water rescues and night vision goggle use.
“My job is not normal, the shifts are day and night, the skill set is complex and specialised, and what I see, hear and feel is extreme. And I love it.“
We respond to jobs as a crew of 4; a critical care doctor, a pilot, a crewman and the paramedic. The pilots, crewmen and doctors are the best of best and I would have them fly me, winch me or treat me any day of the week. One shift could see us doing a water job off the cliffs of Vaucluse, to then fly up to a motor vehicle accident at Gosford. We fly back to the helicopter base over the scenic views of Sydney Harbour where we restock our medical packs, refuel the helicopter and ourselves to then might do a winch job in the Blue Mountains. Our day comes to a close at the 16 hour mark and these are the days that we train for, are tested by and thrive on.
You’re one of two women in NSW doing this job – Why do you think there is a lack of women in your line of work?
Now I am in this position, it feels so right and my colleagues have been nothing but supportive. However, there are many possible reasons including a lack of belief it can be done or a lack of interest in females wanting to do it. I have my female colleagues to thank, for putting these reasons to rest for me. I believe the lack of females come back to two reasons:
Firstly, the physical demands are gruelling, relentless and exhausting. The most physically demanding aspect of the training (the Remote Area Access training) is one of the most satisfying achievements of both my personal and professional life. With the right amount of determination, belief, support and ensuring I was true to my female nature it became clear that it is definitely achievable for women.
Secondly, I think the physical and emotional demands paired with shift work and unpredictable finish times is restrictive for females planning on having or who have babies/young children. I certainly wouldn’t want to be pregnant during the training and it would be very unlikely to get medical clearance to work in the role much past the first trimester. We also have two, three, six and 12 month training requirements. An extended period of time away from the workplace would see your accreditation expire. If I am ever lucky enough to have children, I tell myself this can be overcome. I know my colleagues would be supportive as they have to navigate their own childcare commitments around these conditions. I do know I would also need a supportive employer, the support of my partner and my absolute resolve to make it work because I love it.
What do you find to be the most testing aspect of your job?
The most testing aspect of my job is the reality that despite my best efforts, there will be cases that are beyond our help. I feel deep empathy for my patients and their families. I have learned to reconcile this by knowing that we provide a world class service, in the most extreme environments. If I do my job to very best of my ability, I know that I have given that patient THE very best chance of survival.
How do you download/unwind/find your centre after a traumatic job?
Firstly, I find a little more love and appreciation for my amazing colleagues, my partner and my family. After debriefing with either, or sometimes all of these people in my life I’ll check in with myself to see how I’m feeling. I often self-medicate with exercise. Depending on what I need I will either release emotion/tension with a big cardio hit out, reset and replenish my energy stores with a yoga session or take a cleansing swim in the ocean…the beautiful ocean that I’m so very lucky to live near. My exercise regime plays a huge role in me being able to do my job and to recover and reset from what my job exposes me to.
“The most testing aspect of my job is the reality that despite my best efforts, there will be cases that are beyond our help.”
Is there any particular accident you see happening often, and do you have any advice to the Australian public?
I have seen so many avoidable road and industrial accidents. My advice relates to exploring the many beautiful bush, beach, cliff and canyon areas that Australia has to offer. I am the first person to encourage people to get out there and enjoy it. A day walk can become a life threatening experience for people who aren’t prepared or who suffer a minor injury. Being stuck in the bush with no mobile phone reception, no overnight gear, limited food and water with impending nightfall is an awful situation to be in. Please research the area you plan to explore, know your ability, and be prepared and equipped. Download the Emergency+ app onto your smart phone to be able give the ‘000’ operator GPS coordinates of your location (note this requires network coverage). If you regularly explore these areas invest in a personal EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) or you can access loan units from local agencies. Most importantly tell someone the details of your trip and give them a time to activate help. In NSW you can register your trip with NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, and the NSW Police Force through a form such as the one below; and find out if your local area has something similar. If we know where you are we will get to you sooner, care for you, provide shelter, water, food and then get you out of wherever you are.
What is THE UPSIDE to being you?
THE UPSIDE of me is that I truly love my job; it shows me how lucky I am, and it reminds me to cherish the wonderful life that I have. I get to learn this in new ways everyday, surrounded by the most beautiful and inspiring colleagues. I fly all day over some of the most incredible scenic views, to then return home to my safe place with my partner.
All images courtesy of NSW Ambulance Media