The life of a lifesaver

Having enjoyed a 40 year career helping save many lives through his work as a paramedic and a paramedic training officer, Letterkenny man Fergus McCarron says no two days in his career were every the same.

Having enjoyed a 40 year career helping save many lives through his work as a paramedic and a paramedic training officer, Letterkenny man Fergus McCarron says no two days in his career were every the same.

Not only did he save countless lives as a serving ambulance crew member but Fergus also built up a first class reputation as a pre-hospital care tutor across the country.

Last weekend his fellow professionals joined his friends and family in Letterkenny for a special function to mark his retirement.

We took the opportunity to sit with him as he reflected his life saving career where in one dramatic case the life he helped saved was his own!

Fergus, who lives with wife Una in Ballyraine, is the proud father of three sons, Eamonn, Enda and Conal, and grandfather to five.

He began his career in the Health Board in 1973 when he became a theatre technician and later worked in the x-ray department, where he undertook the goal of correctly re-arranging seven years of mixed up records.

Fergus says that it was 1975 before he entered the ambulance service and once he got out on the road and began face-to-face patient care he knew he had found a career he was passionate about and his “vocation”.

“I knew the boys (ambulance crew) from being about the hospital and I just felt I wanted to do more stuff with patient care after working with patients in the hospital and thought it would be more of a challenge to be out on the road. So I started out on the road and I was no time in it until I realised ‘This is it, This what I want’,” he explained.

He says one of the most challenging yet rewarding aspects of the work was the wide variety of roles you had to undertake, given that they are normally the first on the scene of such serious incidents.

“I used to tell the students that you had to be everything to everybody because there were times when you arrived with patients who might not have seen anyone at that point or may only have seen a GP. So you’re there, and apart from the GP, you’re the nurse for them, sometimes you’re the clergy man or priest when people are worried. You had to act it for everybody and you had to be a good listener and if they are worried you became their psychiatrist saying ‘don’t be worrying about this’ or what ever you can do,” he added.

He says more often than not they can quickly form a very strong bond with their patient, which came naturally to him given his friendly demeanour mixed with professional skill and compassion.

One example of the relationship that stuck out in his mind was when they assisted an 87-year-old who lived in a very isolated area in the gaeltacht.

“This lady was 87-years-old and could hardly speak English. We arrived down and found out she had only been to Letterkenny once in her life. She spoke Irish and there were only 50 neighbours in a very wide area so it was very isolated. My paramedic partner was from Falcarragh originally and when we walked in she was terrified of us. The poor woman didn’t know what was happening to her. I spoke first but not realising she was only Irish speaking, once I realised that I passed it over to my colleague who talked to her and it was the whole relief of having that support that we could talk to her was great. We could just talk to her about her family, her connections and before she knew it she was in the hospital. She stared to cry when we left her because she started to get used to us and now she had all these white coats around her.”

Fergus says situations such as these are what made the job so rewarding.

He says the work was his “vocation” and often days when work shifts were due to end, a late call could mean they were on the road again and in some cases staying on to transport patients to major hospitals down the country. His tough profession resulted in an erratic social and family life where plenty of evening dinners went cold when he was busy dealing with events such as serious traffic accidents or other tragic events.

“I’ve seen a lot of sad situation. Young people getting killed in accidents, suicides or people killed in fires.”

“It is a job that is different to any other profession because you have to deal with everything, no matter if it was tsunami, three foot of snow, high winds, rough terrain - you wouldn’t get that in the hospital.”

Speaking of the positives in his work: “Here’s the beauty of the job. You never go to do anything bad for anybody, you’re always trying to do the good side. The like of, say, taking someone to Dublin for some kind of procedure. To be able to talk to them and reassure them and explain what was happening to them. And when we went into some of those hospitals we would have been familiar with some staff or ward nurses and you could talk to them, and the fact you were in uniform gave it some recognition, so even in jest I’d say to the nurse -‘This is a VIP, The President was even going to send out her car for them but didn’t because we had to bring them up in a stretcher but this is a very important person’ - so even to help put the patient at easy or feel that they were looked”.

Over the years they have had to adapt to the changing needs of the job and this led him into becoming one of the most respect paramedic and pre-hospital care tutors in the country training countless new members.

He began that role 20 years ago when there were just three such tutors in the country all based in Dublin and he became the first to be based outside the capital and has been busy bringing his experience as well as the latest techniques used to improve the life saving work they carry out on a daily basis.

He also worked at maintaining the life-saving defibrillators and in a strange twist of fate in 2001 he ended up following a massive heart attack being saved by a machine he had only fixed hours earlier.

He was in his kitchen when he fell ill and the same defibrillator he was asked to repair when he made a chance visit to the hospital just hours earlier was what saved him from certain death.

Now back to full health he says he has no immediate plans for his retirement, except for some volunteer work and plenty of hours in the garden.