A young Brisbane Catholic working as a paramedic on the streets of London has described the grim, dangerous task of collecting sick and dying patients stricken by the coronavirus.
“People are very scared and anxious… so they call 999,” 34-year-old David Armour recounted, clearly affected by what he sees during a typical paramedic shift.
The Brisbane paramedic and his wife Hannah, 31, a teacher, have spent the last three years in the United Kingdom where the number of coronavirus cases has reached 140,000 and the death toll topped 20,000.
Wearing personal protective equipment – face shield, mask, plastic coveralls and gloves – Mr Armour could attend up to eight or nine patients per shift suffering COVID-19 symptoms.
“I don’t think any of us imagined how serious the situation would get and the massive loss of life that we are seeing at the moment, ” he said.
“So yes it is dangerous work, and from what we have seen so far, the virus does not seem to discriminate amongst age groups and it appears to be a lottery on how bad or how mild your symptoms are.”
One of the most tragic aspects of COVID-19 is that people who need rapid hospital treatment must be suddenly separated and kept isolated from family and loved ones.
“One of the saddest cases I went to last week was a 74-year-old gentleman who had a persistent cough, fever and worsening shortness of breath for seven days prior. It was highly likely he had the virus,” Mr Armour said.
“He was in a critical condition by the time we got to him with severe respiratory distress and very low oxygen levels.
“My crew mate and I knew that once we took this man to hospital that it would be very unlikely that he would survive.
“We realised that this would potentially be the last time that his family would see him alive as they would not be allowed to visit him in isolation.
“Once we got the patient on to our ambulance I had a discussion with the family inside (their home) and informed them of their father’s critical condition and of the high possibility that he may not survive the illness.
“I asked them if they wanted the opportunity to go and say goodbye to him before we left.
“Very distressed, the family went one by one on to the ambulance and spent a few minutes with their father/husband before we left.
“This was one of the most difficult conversations I have ever had to have in my career as a paramedic, but I tried to put myself in the family’s shoes and knew that I would have wanted that opportunity if it was my father in that ambulance.
“Unfortunately cases like these are becoming more and more frequent.”
Setting off from Brisbane to London in 2017, David and Hannah never imagined they would be caught up on the frontline of a health disaster.
“The plan was to come over for two years and then come back home but it’s been three years now and we are still here,” Mr Armour said.
The young Brisbane couple joined the tide of Aussie expats trying a different slice of life.
They settled in Ealing, North West London, travelled in Europe, and joined a Neocatechumenal community in St Benedict’s parish.
Hannah, works as a special educational needs co-ordinator at St Gregory’s Catholic primary school, Ealing.
Just as in Australia, teachers continue to work, looking after the children of essential service workers so their parents can keep working.
Hannah said her neighbourhood came alive each Thursday night as residents stand out on their door steps banging pots and pans in gratitude of health workers.
“It’s a really moving tribute and such a contrast to the streets that have been so silent and empty since lockdown began, weeks ago,” Mrs Armour said.
In one of the world’s busiest cities, Mr Armour’s paramedic skills have grown quickly.
He works in the ambulance call centre as a clinical advisor, but sometimes he’s out on the road.
Even with his experience, he remembers feeling panic as the potential impact of COVID-19 became clear.
“My first thought was to escape, and we did contemplate coming home,” Mr Armour said.
“This time has definitely been a roller coaster emotionally and now we seem to go through phases of fear and anxiety followed by moments of calmness and peace – it’s very strange.
“I do feel though that I have been given a grace to go to work without significant anxiety.”
Mr Armour said he recognised the trauma and stress at the end of each shift.
His support network is his Catholic community, his workmates and wife Hannah.
“Debriefing with her after a difficult shift has always been a big help for me,” he said.
“And we have made some very special life-long friendships here in our community… a big reason why we have not left London.”
Mrs Armour said she was incredibly proud of her husband and his paramedic co-workers facing up to the challenging conditions and tragic circumstances.
“I think looking after people who are at their most vulnerable is the most important thing anyone can do,” she said.