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Not All Lights and Sirens: It’s About Community

William tim medavie

A Special Sunset

Seated behind the wheel of his ambulance, paramedic William Muirhead listened to the elderly couple in back reminisce about their walks at dusk to a local beach to watch the sun go down. The husband was terminally ill and had just been released from hospital to spend his remaining time at home with his wife by his side. Just before they reached their final destination, William stopped, backed the ambulance onto the beach where the couple spent many twilight hours, slid the stretcher out and wheeled it across the sand to the spot where they always sat. The wife reached down to her husband on the stretcher to hold his hand and watched the sun set together one last time. William would later learn from a grateful family that his palliative patient died peacefully the following day.

William tells this story outside the EHS Operations paramedic station in New Glasgow as he waits to respond to his next deployment from the EHS Medical Communications Centre, the first point-of-contact for Nova Scotians in time of need.

Throughout his 44-year career in paramedicine, William has had calls that have brought a smile to his face and others that have carried psychological scars. His face crumples as he recalls the one that sent him to the Westray Mine in Plymouth, N.S., where a methane gas explosion killed 26 miners working underground.

(L-R) William Muirhead, Clinical Transport Operator and Tim Colburn, Operations Supervisor, EHS Operations

Classes and Calls

Nothing could have prepared him for a call like that when he began his career, inspired by the 1970s television action-adventure drama “Emergency!”. Back then, William was still in high school, dividing his time between classes and calls to C.L. Curry Funeral Home & Ambulance.

If he could roll back the clock, William, who is now a paramedic and clinical transport operator (CTO), says he “wouldn’t change a thing. When they say: ‘it’s in your blood’, it truly is.” And regardless of his role — paramedic or CTO — he continues to give back to the community and the patients he serves by providing compassionate and high-quality care.

When he started in the field, several funeral homes in Nova Scotia operated ambulance services as a side business. Both staff and vehicles did double duty by removing the coffin’s back rollers, putting in a stretcher and reaching into the glove compartment for an emergency red ball to put on the roof. This easy conversion made the hearses road ready for any call, whether an accident or an autopsy.

Operations Merger

That changed in the late 1990s when 52 separate ambulance operations were merged into a single, coordinated health care delivery system serving the entire province ― an integrated Emergency Medical Services (EMS) model that New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island later adopted. Today, Nova Scotia’s system provides emergency response through a fleet of ground ambulances, helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, with more than 1,100+ licensed paramedics and registered nurses in the province to protect the health and safety of Nova Scotians.

William’s operations supervisor, Tim Colburn, says if there is one thing he would want the public to know about paramedics is “how dedicated these individuals are to the people of Nova Scotia. It’s one of the least underrated aspects of the job, in my opinion.”

Tim’s career history is similar to William’s. When Tim wasn’t hitting the books as a high school student, he was building rough boxes, waxing the hearse, and going on the odd call, making $20 for a local call and $30 for a call to Halifax and return.

Sacrifices Made

Now age 53, Tim has been a paramedic for 33 years. “There was lots of free time missed, lots of Christmases, friends and family time sacrificed to this job. It’s definitely not a normal 9-to-5 job.”

So why does he do it? “I got into this business to protect the community I live in.”

Tim has two tattoos on his left forearm. One is of his daughter's heartbeat when she was born three months premature and weighed 2.5 pounds. “I could hold her whole body in my hand.” The second tattoo is of a 10-point buck, a trophy from bow and arrow hunting, one of the sports that provide respite from his high-stress job, together with fishing, riding his side-by-side and camping.

Like many of his colleagues, Tim spends a lot of time giving to others both on and off duty, and this spirit of giving has not gone unnoticed. Tim was awarded Nova Scotia's Exemplary Service Medal — recognizing his efforts to voluntarily fight fires, groom snowmobile trails, and occasionally fill in as a school bus driver.

Tim’s tattoos have special meaning

Vast District

As operations supervisor for EHS Operations northern region — a large swath of mostly rural Nova Scotia stretching from Amherst to Enfield, larger than the entire province of Prince Edward Island — his key role is keeping ambulances rolling and responding to calls, particularly the critical ones, where time can make all the difference.

Due to the region’s vast size, Tim alternates visits to the ambulance stations and hospitals to check in on his crew. Whether he’s at his Truro office or on the road, he keeps a close eye on the computer screen that indicates where ambulances are at all times, making sure they don’t stay in one place longer than necessary.

Anything is Possible

It’s a Monday morning, and paramedics are being dispatched to calls for various heart and stroke issues, slips and falls — nothing out of the ordinary for them. But as paramedics know all too well, there isn’t a typical day or night in emergency medical response. Anything is possible.

As Tim drives through his district, his radio crackles with a call that a vehicle jack has slipped on a job site, possibly pinning a worker underneath. Tim can see from the screen that his truck is closest to the scene and may need to respond. He listens intently to the dispatcher. A few intense minutes pass until he hears that the worker is up, away from the vehicle, unhurt.

Tim quietly continues onto his next stop — the Colchester Regional Hospital — where paramedics tend to the patients brought in by ambulance. The paramedics wait to find out when a physician can see their patient and/or if a bed is available here or at another location. This can take hours, even entire shifts, causing what are known as offload delays.


Freeing Up His Crew

Tim will consult the charge nurse or physician on duty to help expedite transfers of care and make his crew available to answer other emergency calls.

Earlier that day, Tim visited paramedics at the Aberdeen Hospital in New Glasgow, including Nick Rockey, who switched careers when his job as a carpenter with Marine Atlantic ended with the completion of the Confederation Bridge. He’s been on both the giving and receiving end of care.

Nick points to fellow paramedic Anne Cummings nearby as one of the colleagues who saved his life when he suffered a heart attack in 2017. That experience gave him greater empathy for his patients. “If you are laid on that stretcher you get how scary it is.”

As Anne cleans and restocks her ambulance, she speaks of her life-changing decision to become a paramedic after her divorce.

“I wanted to do something good and positive. I’m not an adrenaline junkie. I simply love helping people.”

Tim says the genuine desire to provide care and comfort to patients is the one quality above all that is needed to do this line of work. “You have to truly care for people.”

William may have summed up it best in telling the story of his patient’s last sunset on the beach and in describing the sense of purpose that his 44-year career has given him.

“It’s not what I am. It’s who I am.”

Anne Cummings readies for her next call, Aberdeen Hospital
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