A sad end to an Irish paramedic’s first shift abroad on Christmas Day

The Galway man who has worked in incidents in the UK from the Novichok nerve agent attack to transporting a patient at risk of having Ebola virus

Phillip Cahill is originally from Salthill in Galway, but now lives in Wales, where he staffs an ambulance rapid response car

Phillip Cahill is originally from Salthill in Galway, but now lives in Wales, where he staffs an ambulance rapid response car

 

Each week - even on Christmas week - Irish Times Abroad meets an Irish person working in an interesting job overseas. This week, we spoke Phillip Cahill, originally from Salthill in Co Galway and now works in south Wales, where he staffs an ambulance rapid response car. He lives with his girlfriend in the village of Lilangeni in Bridgend county.

When did you leave Ireland, and why?

I left Ireland in September 2008. I had been interested in becoming a paramedic for some time, but had no luck with my applications to the Health Service Executive (HSE) in Ireland. A good friend of mine from the UK, who was living in Ireland, was in the same boat and she had been looking for opportunities in the UK. We both applied to East of England Ambulance Service Trust (EEAST) as student ambulance paramedics and were successful. She started three months before I did. I loaded up the family car with my bits and pieces, and my Dad and I set off for Rosslare for the ferry over to Fishguard. We then made the six-hour drive to Chelmsford, Essex.

Where did you study in Ireland?

I went to "The Bish" secondary school and then onto Galway Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT) in Castlebar to study outdoor education and leisure. My three years in GMIT were absolutely packed with adventure, character building experiences, life lessons and serious fun. 

These are the jobs that get the blood pumping, brain whirring and give me that little jolt of adrenaline 

My time in the college was where my love for the great outdoors really grew, and my interest in pre-hospital first aid and medicine developed. Each year we had to complete a first aid course relevant to the outdoor activities we were undertaking and I loved it.

What is it like being a paramedic in the UK?

Being a paramedic is by and large a great job. About 90 per cent of the time the job is fairly easy going. I deal with people who are mostly appreciative and happy that I'm there to help them. The other 10 per cent of the job is where I really earn my money, and I have to initiate treatment, administer medications and organise emergency transport to care in hospital. These are the jobs that get the blood pumping, brain whirring and give me that little jolt of adrenaline that makes me work at my most efficient and effective. This is the part I really love and what keeps me interested in my job.

Do you have an average day?

My average day has varied over the years. When I started my ambulance career I spent just over three years working on frontline ambulances answering all your regular 999 calls. These calls included elderly people who couldn’t get out of their chair and needed help, road traffic collisions, people with chronic medical conditions and patients who have had sudden critical illness or injury. Our day started with a quick vehicle and equipment check, and then we were off for the day attending jobs given to us by our control room staff. The work load was mostly steady and we would even get a few hours downtime on the odd nightshift. Delays at the hospital were not uncommon, but weren’t excessive at that time. It was a nice balance between work and downtime, I could see myself having a long career in the ambulance service as it was then.

In 2011 I applied for and got a job with the Ambulance Hazardous Area Response Team known as HART. The HARTs are comprised of specially recruited personnel who are trained and equipped to provide the ambulance response to high risk and complex emergency situations. My training allowed me to provide medical care in hazardous situations such as incidents involving hazardous materials, CBRN(e) - Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosives, MTA - Marauding Terrorist Attack incidents, SWAH - Safe Working at Height incidents, Confined Spaces incidents, Unstable Terrain incidents, for example collapsed buildings, Water Operations incidents and providing support to security operations.

I worked in a fixed team of six people with one team leader. Working in this team environment was great. Some high-profile incidents my unit has been involved in are the transport of a person at risk of having Ebola, a number of deliberate chemical exposure incidents, the Novichok nerve agent attack in Salisbury and the recent discovery of 39 bodies in the back of a lorry in Essex.

My first operational shift on an ambulance after my initial training was on Christmas Day 2008

After seven years in HART, my partner and I decided to move to Wales to get back to the great outdoors. I am now working on an ambulance rapid response car in south Wales.

Tell us about Christmases past. Does anything stick in your mind?

My first operational shift on an ambulance after my initial training was on Christmas Day 2008. I was crewed up with two experienced ambulance crew, one paramedic and one emergency medical technician. I got thrown in the deep end. Our first job that day was a cardiac arrest. An elderly couple had been getting ready to go to see family. The husband had heard a bang upstairs and found his wife unresponsive on the landing. We arrived and the lady was in cardiac arrest with her husband doing chest compressions on her. We took over and tried to resuscitate her, but despite our best efforts the lady passed away. They had been married for 60 years. I remember that job with a clarity that I don’t have for things I did last week.

And that’s the way it goes with some jobs, the fact this was my first job and it was Christmas made this job stick in my mind more than others. My second Christmas Day in the UK I had off work, but was working on December 23rd and 26th, so I couldn’t go home. I was living in a house share at that stage and everyone else had gone home for the holidays. I remember being sat in the house by myself, thinking I should have just picked up some overtime, because would have been better than watching TV.

Since I’ve started working in the ambulance service Christmas just hasn’t really meant much to me. I’ve worked seven out of the last 10 Christmases so the festive season doesn’t get me excited any more. But people are usually a little more appreciative and thankful when we go to help them over the holidays and we might get a few Roses or Quality Street, or a mince pie to take with us.

Would you work as a paramedic in Ireland?

It was my original plan, but at the moment Susie and I are pretty happy to see how we get on in Wales. One reason we moved to Wales was that it's similar to Ireland in terms of countryside and surf, and way of life. People are friendly and chilled out, but we get most of the perks of living in the UK also. I recently applied for a position working in Ireland as a paramedic, but not in the ambulance service. I got to the final 20 applicants out of more than 600. In the future we will definitely consider a move to Ireland.

Are salaries for paramedics similar in England and Ireland?

On average I take home about £2,400 (€2,825) a month at the moment and I’m still working my way up the pay band. It tops out at about £37,900 (€44,600) plus unsocial hours supplement. This affords me a decent lifestyle where I have disposal income on a monthly basis.

Do the Irish fit in well there?

My experience living in England and Wales as an Irish person has been nothing but positive. The English like the Irish. People often tell me of their travels to Ireland and their only negative remarks are about the rain and the price of a pint, otherwise they sing the praises of the Irish people and countryside. England in particular is a mixture of many nationalities and cultures, and the Irish fit in well. I love the diversity found in the UK.

One of her daughters asked could I speak any Irish as her mum used to say the odd word in Irish. So, I made my best attempt at saying a few words as Gaeilge to this lady. She was immediately still in her chair

Are there any other Irish people in your circles?

I have a couple of Irish friends who work in the ambulance service who I chat to and meet up with for a drink occasionally. These guys came to the UK quite a few years after I did and at a time when there were quite a lot of Irish coming over to work in the ambulance service. I have a cousin who lives in London with her fiancé, who is Scottish. It’s a great comfort knowing that she is there if I ever needed her. We visit a few times a year and put the world to rights, and they show us the best parts of London.

What are the costs like compared to Ireland?

Generally cost of living is less in the UK, which has a lot has to do with competition and the size of economy. Fibre broadband is £18 (€21) a month here. Groceries are a little cheaper here and alcohol is cheaper. Accommodation varies hugely depending on location as is the case in Ireland. The rail network is extensive, although it's expensive in some areas. We pay council tax, which covers recycling and refuse collection, contributes to police and fire services, and other local council services. It's currently £2,000 (€2,354) per year.

Is there anything you miss about living and working in Ireland?

I miss my family, my friends and being able to pop over to see them at the drop of a hat. I am missing out on seeing nieces and nephews regularly. I miss Galway and its culture, good vibe and all the live music. It's a cracking place. 

One little story about a patient I went to recently I thought you may like...

I attended an elderly Irish lady who had lived in Wales for decades. She had dementia, she was non verbal and in a distressed state. Her adult children were with her. After a while with the lady, one of her daughters asked me was I from Ireland (I often get mistaken for Scottish in Wales). I said I was. She asked could I speak any Irish as her mum used to say the odd word in Irish and she used to count in Irish also. So, I made my best attempt at saying a few words as Gaeilge to this lady and started counting as Gaeilge. She was immediately still in her chair and a smile from ear to ear streamed across her face as she grasped my hand with hers, and she was calm and relaxed. It was quite emotional.

Happy Christmas to all the Irish Abroad

If you work in an interesting career overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email abroad@irishtimes.com with a little information about you and what you do.

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