EXTREME MEDICS: Off-duty hero haunted by child's death
AN ADVANCED care paramedic was enjoying her day off, driving home from visiting family and choosing whether to stop for lunch - what she didn't know was her decision on that day would lead to harrowing circumstances.
As a paramedic for more than 10 years, Bundaberg woman Sheree Wheeler thought she had a handle on the hardships of an emergency service role.
"Up until late last year I'd never (said) there was anything that I hadn't actually coped with quite well because we're trained to do what we do ... as long as you're confident in your skills, what you do is actually just go through the mechanics of a job,” Ms Wheeler said.
"However last year ... I was the first person at a scene that had a fatality.”
Ms Wheeler was travelling back from visiting family when she came across a horrific two-vehicle rollover on the Bruce Highway, and on-duty officers had not yet arrived.
"What we generally do ... if you have a look and you see something like that with no emergency services personnel, you'll generally go and give a helping hand,” she said.
"So that's what I did.”
She left her car in the line-up of traffic on the busy highway and approached the three or four people trying to rescue the occupants of the vehicles.
"So here I turn up in my shorts and thongs - as you do on your day off - and I tell them I'm a paramedic, I'll just help out here as much as I can,” she said.
"The biggest hardship about that is automatically everyone goes 'OK, well you're in control here'.
"And never had I felt more out of control.”
Ms Wheeler had attended many traffic crashes, but she said the major difference between being on the job and that specific crash was not knowing what she was walking into.
On a regular day, initial information from calls to 000 would prepare en route paramedics.
Armed with just a small first aid kit she kept in her car and gloves, she sprang into action.
She could see the occupant of one vehicle had died, so she focused on the second vehicle.
There was an unresponsive child under the age of 10 that she could see but could not get to, so the situation then became a race against the clock.
"The hardest thing about that job - it's still quite raw and it sits with me all the time - is that we couldn't get to the child that was in the car and it took us about 10 minutes to actually be able to get that child out,” Ms Wheeler said.
"When I did get the child out, it was unresponsive and not breathing.”
An off-duty nurse travelling on the road came to help.
"So we actually started doing CPR on that child and it was another five minutes before we got any QAS personnel there,” Ms Wheeler said.
"And then, we had no success - I continued with the resuscitation on that child with one of the QAS personnel ... but we didn't have any success.”
Ms Wheeler said the hardest part about being unable to revive the child was when the decision was made to stop resuscitation and the reaction.
"I've heard that sort of cry before - of total despair from the family members and it never leaves you - but that one in particular doesn't leave me,” she said.
"We're trained to save people and we know we don't always save people but you don't try if you don't think that it's worthwhile.
"Trying to save someone, especially a child, and not saving them, that's one of the most difficult parts of the job.”
What started as a day visiting her own children and grandchildren ended with the loss of another mother and father's precious little one.
"I had just left (my) grandchildren on that day, they were in trouble with Mum and Dad, so straight after that job I rang my son and I said 'just give them a cuddle every night before they go to bed, even if they're naughty, it doesn't matter',” she said.
Not long before she came across the crash she was deciding whether to stop in at Maryborough for lunch.
She said if she had chosen to stop rather than continue driving, she wouldn't have known what had unfolded up the road.
More than four months on, Ms Wheeler is seeing a counsellor regularly to help her overcome the emotional impact of the event.
They believe it was the minutes before she could reach the child that had struck her the most, the crucial moments of not knowing what condition the child was going to be in and the desire to get to the child as quickly as possible.
Ms Wheeler said her mental health has improved greatly, but sometimes simple things could become overwhelming and all the emotion would flood back.
She said a few weeks ago she was walking through Bunnings when she passed an aisle that had rolled-up mats, the same mats as one she had placed the child on that day to try resuscitation.
She had to step outside the hardware store, then take a few minutes to control her breathing, before she could return to continue her shopping.
The QAS organisation has multiple levels of support for paramedics, including staff routinely checking on peers, team members trained to give a basic level of counselling, and a professional counsellor that paramedics can self-refer to if they are concerned for their own well-being.
Despite the traumatising impact of the incident, Ms Wheeler says she enjoyed her job as much as she did 10 years ago.
"I love it, and as you can see I'm no spring chicken, so I have to stay fit enough and healthy enough now to do it until I retire because I don't want to do anything else,” she said.