Well-known NSW Ambulance inspector Steve Towle will take to the road for his last shift on Friday, May 19, bringing to a close a tremendous 42 years of dedicated service.
Based at Port Macquarie for the past 30 years, Mr Towle will take with him a sense of pride at the many patients he has treated and assisted along the way.
“I will miss the interaction with patients, making them feel better and reassuring them. A lot of our patients are aged 80 and over and reassurance goes a long way,” he said.
Mr Towle signed up in November 1975 at age 18, inspired by his father Fred who had been an honourary (volunteer paramedic) for about 10 years.
“I started out working in a bank, which didn’t inspire me that much. So I had a think about what I liked to do,” Mr Towle said.
“I had spent a reasonable amount of time growing up around ambulances and ambulance stations because my father was a honourary – at Yass then Tamworth. It was just something I thought I would like to do. Plus I already had my first aid certificate.”
His training involved a four-week probationers’ course in Sydney, followed by postings to a series of ambulance stations over the next 12 years including Dungog, Dubbo, Bathurst and Goulburn. In 1987 he was appointed deputy superintendent (under the old ranking structure) and assigned to Port Macquarie.
With three decade’s experience serving the needs of the Port community, Mr Towle can personally relate to the highs – and traumatic lows – of the region.
Uppermost is the 1989 Kempsey bus crash when two full tourist coaches collided head-on on the Pacific Hwy at Clybucca Flat, killing 35 people and injuring 41. He was one of the first paramedics on scene and was there until the end, almost 17 hours later.
“I responded when the call came in around 3.30am. It was a terrible scene. Just about every one of them was a young person,” he said.
Aside from the mammoth job of assessing and triaging patients, there was coping with the mental and emotional fallout, including post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), although the condition had no official label at that time.
“We had a lot of problems trying to work our way through Kempsey. A number of the paramedics who responded have since left the job or retired early,” he said.
He counted himself as one of the “lucky” ones, having had his PTSD symptoms identified while attending a course for emergency service workers, five years after the incident.
“Two trauma psychologists attended. The Kempsey crash came up and they collared me and asked me some questions. It all fell into place from there and I got the help I needed. I’m a very lucky person.”
Mr Towle said wellbeing support within NSW Ambulance has since gone ahead in leaps and bounds.
“There’s not the stigma attached to it as there was back then. Then there’s the range of support options including our employee assistance program, peer support officers and chaplains,” he said.
Mental illness was also a key issue involving patients. Mr Towle said patients suffering mental illness has always formed part of the job, only the context had changed, from patients being mentally unwell due to the absence of effective psychiatric services and medications to, increasingly, many of today’s patient’s being “mentally disordered” due to the effects of drugs.
“Mental illness brought on by illicit drug and alcohol abuse has increased our workload significantly. We might have done four or five mental health patients a month 15 years ago. Now we’re probably doing four or five a day,” he said.
“When a person comes off these drugs they can go into depression; in other cases it unlocks schizophrenia or brings out psychosis. It’s very sad.”
He said the drugs were also a factor in the increase of violence against paramedics.
Improvements in treatment, equipment and medications had changed enormously in the past four decades, leading to greater patient survival rates, he said.
“When I started, we had basic first aid gear, Entonox (gas) for pain, and oxygen. Today we can give morphine and Fentanyl for pain relief; and thrombolytic drugs to break up clots. We’re able to canulate and give fluids.
“Introduction of the advanced life support training in the 1980s was the biggest step forward for regional NSW. It led to patients arriving at hospital in better shape.
“It was no longer about keeping them at the level you found them. With medication and treatment their conditions improved. In some cases there was nothing more the doctor needed to do upon the patient’s arrival at hospital.”
Mr Towle said the assisted delivery of five healthy babies over the years is a highlight; so too is the camaraderie with colleagues and ability to help patients.
A father of two and grandfather of four (with a fifth due on Saturday, May 20) Mr Towle said he would spend his retirement with family, travelling Australia and overseas, and continuing his charity work with Rotary and the Wauchope Baptist Church.