As children, though we throw the words around a lot, there are very few things that we really want and only one thing we really need; our parents. We want Daddy to be there to scare away the monsters at night and Mummy to kiss our skinned knees and paper cuts; we want these heroes to be in our lives whenever we need them. The trouble with being the child of a Paramedic is that more often than not, in the most crucial years of our childhood, our parents are too busy being someone else’s hero to come and be ours, to help us.
I’d like to take a moment to clarify that in no way do I resent my father for his career. I am incredibly proud to be his daughter and –if it’s possible- love him more for the work that he does, however I will not deny the impact that shift work had on my family growing up. Like all Paramedics, Dad was forced into nightshifts that, already unpleasant by their very definition, were made worse by the knowledge that he was leaving his wife at home to cook for, clean up after and basically be mum and dad for three young children. Forced overtime caused him to miss helping us with homework, going to the park, tucking us in at night and games of street cricket. He missed Easters, Christmases, birthdays and camping trips all in the name of work but rarely did he complain. Worst of all though, above missing the holidays and the bed-time stories, Dad missed out on so much of the everyday, seemingly insignificant moments that took us from who we were then to whom we are now. We are three independent young adults who grew up while our father was speeding, lights and sirens, in the other direction.
As the youngest of the three children in my family, I hardly noticed this happening around me. I was more concerned with romance between our pet dog and the Labrador next door than the counting the hours my Dad was at home. Don’t get me wrong, this was not being selfish- I was six years old and oblivious to everything. Looking back now though, I know why riding in the back of the ambulance was such a novelty and why seeing Dad in uniform always seemed so cool- it was simply the fact that he was there so rarely that made those moments so special.
In this instance, my family is not unique. We are not the rare exception to an otherwise perfect system. There are thousands of children every day who are missing time with their parents and by the same token, thousands of parents who are missing out on watching their children grow up. Missing first steps, first words, first days of school and football games. They are the parents of children whose defining moments happen in in front of crowds made up of other people’s mums and dads and never their own. It paints a bleak picture and despite the devastation and hurt that Paramedics see in their world every day, I feel confident in saying that missing out on time with their children and spouses causes more lasting pain than any of it. I know this to be true because I have seen it on my father’s face when he looks as us, and hear it in his voice with each apology he should not have had to make for the time he has lost with us.
More and more often as we get older, my siblings and I put on old family videos, look back and play the old “remember when…” Dad is missing in so much of that footage, and sadly shakes his head and apologises, saying “I missed so much when you were growing up.” This is true. But the guilt he carries with him every day should not be his burden- his guilt is a product of the hours of overtime he worked to cover the crews who spent all day and night banked outside hospitals. His guilt comes as a result of his commitment to working for an organisation that is under-resourced and undervalued by the Victorian government.
Over the years, I have watched Dad struggle more and more to live within the sanctions of Ambulance Victoria, trying to juggle his roles as station manager, driving instructor, union activist and mentor (to name a few) and my heart simultaneously breaks and swells with pride to see how hard he has to fight, knowing that there are paramedics all over the state in the same fight. People who are literally giving the service their blood, sweat and tears to the point where days off are spent sleeping or resting acquired aches and pains. Our parents grow old before their time, exhausting both mind and body to compensate for the staff the service does not have, to work through resourcing problems every day that AV and the government say do not exist.
In addition to this, there is a disturbing increase in the number of suicides in this industry. These people who, every day, worked tirelessly to save the lives of others no longer felt they could continue with their own. What message does that send their families? Are we not enough to fight for? Going from seeing a loved one in the fleeting hours between school pick-up and a six p.m nightshift to never seeing them again is a pain that no child should ever know but sadly, more and more are faced with it.
As a Paramedic with more than thirty years on the job, Dad has lost too many colleagues and too many friends. His own stresses and struggles caused by the corruption of AV are worsened every time he learns of the loss of another paramedic. Every child fears losing their parents but for me, and for my brother and sister, the possibility is made so much more real by the toxic environment in which our Dad works each day.
I am not naïve enough to think that the issues within Ambulance Victoria can be fixed overnight. I also know that nightshift and overtime are inevitable, however there is still an obvious solution; increase government funding to Ambulance Victoria, in a tied grant ensuring the money goes towards more staff and resources rather than the pockets of the AV CEO and his managers who are inhibiting CODE RED efforts, rather than supporting their staff and colleagues.
A real investment in Ambulance Victoria would allow paramedics more time with their families – time in which the only coloured lights are on stage at the school musical and the only sirens are those for half-time at the footy. Time to just sit with their children and watch the world go by, not their lives.
Dad and I at the CODE RED rally today (12/8/13)