Frontline heroes: Their stories

By Veronica Schmidt

Emergency workers deal with life-and-death situations every day but there are some call-outs they will never forget. Three such heroes tell their stories to Veronica Schmidt

Firefighter Theresa Nesbit at Manly Fire Station. Photo / Greg Bowker
Firefighter Theresa Nesbit at Manly Fire Station. Photo / Greg Bowker

'The victim was our son's best friend.'

Theresa Nesbit is a volunteer firefighter and paid firefighter instructor at Manly Fire Station. She is also an emergency nurse. She was volunteering for Silverdale Fire Station when she was called to a fatal car crash and found that the victim was a friend of her teenage children.

"I've been a volunteer firefighter for eight years and my husband is also a firefighter - he's been a volunteer for 26 years. We're a blended family and three of the kids are quite close together in age; they were all teenagers at high school at the time.

"It was during the evening and we were watching TV when we got called to an MVA [motor vehicle accident]. We arrived on the scene and it was carnage. It looked like the car had gone through a cheese grater. I think the car had barrel-rolled down the road and the debris was strewn. All of the occupants - I think there were four of them - had been ejected from the car.

"Police were on the scene but we were the first fire truck. Our immediate action was to make sure the scene was as safe as possible and then from there, it was patient care.

"I ended up looking after a young man. I realised that I knew who he was, although I didn't know him particularly well. He had been thrown from the vehicle and he was sore all over. He had abrasions and a number of wounds. I was astounded that he was talking to me. When I saw the extent of the damage to the car I wasn't expecting to see a conscious patient.

"I put a couple of dressings on his wounds, especially his hand wounds, but the main concern was his level of distress - he was very afraid. When a patient's dealing with that kind of trauma and shock they can be quite unstable. I had to try to make him feel as safe as I could and let him know I was there and that I would stay with him.

"Once we got the patients into the ambulances and away to hospital, we cleaned up and cleared the road.

"When we were back in the truck, my husband said to me that one of the other victims was our son's best friend. He was also a friend of my daughter's. He was the worst injured and later we found out he had died.

"It was really shocking because it could have been any one of our children. Our kids all hung out together and did stuff together. It was an intense shock thinking that could have been any child - it could have been our child.

"Your heart goes out to the family who is experiencing the loss of a loved one but you also think to yourself, 'Thank God it wasn't my child'.

"The difficulty that we have is that we can't go home and say 'we saw this ...' because of confidentiality and privacy. We could talk to each other as husband and wife because we are on the same crew, but we couldn't go and say to the kids that we went to an accident and this was who was involved.

"My daughter found out through friends that there had been a car accident and that her friend had been killed. She knew we had gone to an incident that night because she was home at the time when we were called out. She wanted to know what had happened and what we'd done, but you can't say. All I could do was help her work through the shock of losing a friend.

"My husband was really concerned and all he wanted to do was make sure his son was okay. I became very protective. I was very conscious if my daughter was hanging out with friends - would there be any driving? I became hypersensitised, thinking, 'What are the kids doing? Where are they?' Anything that happens on your back door makes you want to bubble-wrap them.

"It affected me for quite a while. I'm probably an over-protective mum anyway, but it cut quite deep."


St John intensive care paramedic Helen Bickers. Photo / Martin Hunter
St John intensive care paramedic Helen Bickers. Photo / Martin Hunter

'I had eight minutes to work out how to deliver a baby.'

Helen Bickers is a St John intensive care paramedic. She lives in Christchurch but was working in Dunedin when she was called to assist a woman in labour. She had never delivered a baby.

"I've worked for St John for about 18 years but until that night I had never delivered a baby. I'd had a baby of my own but I had a caesarean - that was the closest I'd ever come to a birth.

"It was a night shift and I was working with a male volunteer. We got sent to an imminent birth. We were told that the mother's midwife was present at her house. I reversed up the driveway and I can still remember a woman standing there in a maroon velour running suit, saying, 'She's upstairs!'

"I got out of the ambulance and I could hear screaming. There was a woman lying on the bed in a T-shirt. I remember seeing the father and the grandmother - but no midwife. They said, 'She's at the hospital waiting for us'. My face must have been classic.

"It was [the woman's] third child. She said, 'This is happening too fast and I just want to push'.

"I said to the grandmother, 'Go and get the shower curtain!' She didn't question it, she just went to the bathroom and pulled the shower curtain off and we put it underneath her on the bed. Lucky they didn't have a shower door!

"I said calmly, 'Birth is a natural process, just do what your body wants to do'. On the inside I was thinking, 'Oh my God! It's about nine years since I went to that lecture on birth and I really can't remember what the hell I'm supposed to do next.'

"I was a bit like a duck on the river - the top of it is really serene and under the water they're paddling like hell. Before I knew it she let out a scream, pushed and the baby arrived, just like that. It was eight minutes between when I arrived and when the baby arrived. I caught her and thought, 'This is a very slippery thing', and then I put her up on her mum's chest.

"They named her Sophia Rose. My daughter's name is Sophie, so that was really lovely.

"The mother gave the baby a cuddle and she looked at me and said, 'You were so reassuring, thank you so much'. And I said to her, 'I'll be honest - I've never delivered a baby in my life'. She burst into tears and then we all burst into tears.

"I sent the family a card afterwards because it was so special and such a privilege to be there. They sent me a Christmas card with a picture of the baby.

"I'll always remember her. I go to a lot of deaths in my job and it's really nice to bring a person into the world rather than see them out."


Senior Constable Bruce Lamb with his new dog, Mylo. Photo / Martin Hunter
Senior Constable Bruce Lamb with his new dog, Mylo. Photo / Martin Hunter

'I was shot in the face.'

On July 13, 2010, during a drug search at a Christchurch flat, Senior Constable Bruce Lamb was shot in the face. His police dog, Gage, was killed and his colleague, Constable Mitch Alatalo, was shot in the leg. Christopher Smith was later convicted of attempted murder, wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm and killing a police dog. In August this year, Gage was posthumously awarded a prestigious PDSA Gold Medal for bravery.

"When it happened I'd been with the police for 32 years and I'd been a dog handler for 25 years. Gage was my fifth dog and he was definitely the best. He was exceptional but also difficult. He had a highly inflated opinion of himself.

"I'm not the sort of person who says that they have 'feelings' but that day I said, 'I have a feeling that something is going to go badly wrong today'. Then we got a call asking for back-up.

"We got there and I started to walk away from the van and then thought, 'I've left Gage's lead on and if I don't take it off him or take him with me, he'll go mental'. So I went around the back of the van and got him - that probably saved my life.

"Mike [Constable Mike Wardle] and Mitch had handcuffed Smith's brother, Steven, and he was sitting on the steps. They had said to Christopher Smith that they wanted a word with him and he had said, 'No, I'm going to my room to change', and walked off down the hall. Mike asked us to go and fish him out. I thought nothing of it.

"We got to the end of the hallway and there was a closed door. I pushed it open. The room was in complete darkness. I could see the silhouette of a person and a split second later, as my eyes became accustomed to the darkness, I saw a firearm pointed at me.

There was a flash and I felt this almighty impact on my face. It was an intense pain. He'd hit me right in the middle of the mouth, under the lip. I could feel something in my mouth that felt like a shotgun rod. I thought, 'I'm going to die here'.

"The impact of the bullet stunned me and turned my head and I fell over. I was on the ground face down with my back to Smith. I looked over my shoulder and Smith was pointing his gun at my head.

"I can still feel Gage's hindquarters going over my head - he launched himself over me.

We've pieced it together and we think he bit Smith on his left arm just as he fired. The dog got between me and the bullet and he was hit right in the middle of the back.

"I didn't realise Gage had been shot. I was face down and there was too much going on in my mouth for me to notice anything. Another cop came running in, grabbed me by the back of my vest and helped me to my feet. Smith fired a third shot at me that missed. He then turned his attention on Mitch who was going out through the window. He hit him in the leg.

"Once I was out on the drive, I looked down and Gage was running beside me and I thought, 'Great, he's fine'. I ran to the end of the driveway, holding my jaw. I couldn't stop the blood. Then I looked down at Gage and realised I was dragging an unconscious dog on the lead.

I thought, 'I've got to get you out of here', so I picked him up and carried him out to the road, but when I got to the middle of the road I thought, 'You're dead, mate', and I left him there because there were still shots being fired and a lot going on. That is my biggest regret. I still don't like that I left him on the road.

"I was losing a lot of blood. A couple of guys grabbed me and they said, 'An ambulance is on the way'. For some reason, I said, 'No. I'm losing too much blood. If I wait for an ambulance I'm going to die here.

"Someone drove me to the hospital. I was quite proud of myself because I'd kept the pressure on and I thought I'd stopped the bleeding, because there was a lot less blood coming. Actually, the bleeding had stopped as I was running out of blood.

"My jaw was smashed into 15 pieces. All the teeth on the bottom right-hand side were gone except one at the back. But the bullet just missed my tongue - otherwise I wouldn't have been able to talk properly - and it missed my carotid artery by a flea's penis. It was thanks to Gage, he saved me.

"I was off work for the best part of a year, with ongoing surgeries. During that time we got a lovely wee black labrador puppy [Mylo], who is now my police dog.

"It's changed me. Our house was completely destroyed in the first earthquake, before the big one. Before the shooting I would have been beside myself about that and I'm not. We survived, so it's not important. Friends and family are what's important.

"I don't dwell on Christopher Smith. I don't think about him. I don't care about him. He's been dealt with by the system and it's the system that I work for."

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