Could you be a Lifesaver? Merrin's Story March 2019

St John First Responder Merrin Townley based in Russell, Bay of Islands

Whilst you read this you may find yourself thinking, ‘That could be me’. If you’re inspired by Merrin, get in touch with St John. There are many ways you can volunteer with them – from becoming part of the front-line crew in an ambulance to attending events as a First Responder.

Merrin Townley is on most days a quiet, shy resident of Russell, Bay of Islands. But twice a week, as she puts on her St John uniform, she metamorphosises into Merrin, passionate, knowledgeable Operational Volunteer for St John. “Out there, making a difference.” Merrin says.

Merrin’s role

Merrin is a First Responder. She assists the Lead Officer who is either a Paramedic or EMT (Emergency Medical Technician). Her role involves finding out the patients’ medical histories, taking and recording ‘vitals’ (blood pressure, temperature) and driving the ambulance. She volunteers for 2 shifts a week, 6am - 6pm and 6pm – 6am. Merrin does not have to physically be in the St John Station for this time, she has a pager and responds from home. When the pager goes off she dons her uniform and can be at the station in 6-8 minutes.

Why did Merrin volunteer?

With her grown up children having ‘fledged’ 6 years ago Merrin and her partner moved to Russell where they have been for three years now. It had been a quiet first winter, and Merrin didn’t know a soul. She felt she wanted to ‘become part of the community in order to help and meet people’.

When she was growing up her ambition was to be a nurse, however life got in the way (as it often does) and her plans changed. Upon reaching the age of 50 Merrin was persuaded by a friend that the time was right to apply for nursing.

She began her application, but in her own words, she ‘chickened out’. The move to Russell was the kickstart she needed to ‘make her dream come true’ and she took the bold step of volunteering for St John. After an interview which was a friendly, welcoming chat she walked away feeling really good about it and the people she would be working with.

Merrin’s volunteering role began with observation shifts. It was then she knew that ‘this is what I was meant to do’. She loved it from the beginning, being part of a team, helping the community, meeting people and learning, learning, learning. At first she was worried – it had been a long time since school. But with support from her mentor and the rest of the ‘St John family’ she has successfully completed her ORM (Operational Risk Management), First Aid, Driver training and First Responder course.

What does Merrin get out of giving her time voluntarily?

Merrin absolutely loves her volunteer work, she shines with enthusiasm and confidence when explaining what she does and her response to this was priceless. She described it as the feeling she had inside when a patient – often scared, worried and in pain - gave her hand a squeeze in gratitude, or she saw the look in their eye when she reassured them, or the heartfelt hug she received from someone unable to express thanks verbally. It was making a little bit of difference to vulnerable people, just being there for them. She never thought in a million years that she was capable of doing this and she gets back tenfold by just giving up a few hours of her time.

Merrin said the opportunities within St John are incredible. All the training is paid for. She has just embarked upon an EMT qualification which she is thoroughly enjoying. Merrin believes that life experience has given her compassion and understanding, age is not a barrier.

After every job there is a debrief during which she can speak freely with her partner. As a ‘newbie’ she has never felt judged and realises there are no ‘silly questions’. Merrin has not yet attended a major cardiac arrest or car accident and confesses that the first time she tried to take a pulse she was concentrating so hard that she found it very difficult. But practise makes everything easier and Merrin has now even worked a few shifts at Kawakawa when needed there.

Merrin summed up her volunteering experience like this: “It’s become my passion, I love it. Everyone at the station is willing to give their time to help you as a volunteer, you are never alone, and it is such a rewarding thing to do. The closest ambulance station would be Kawakawa if it were not for Russell, so volunteers are doing this for the community."

- Diana Smith (Volunteer reporter at Volunteering Northland)