The contrast between work and home is extreme for Mount Maunganui's Dennis Mundy. He talks to Juliet Rowan about the dangerous task of teaching first aid in conflict zones

Dennis Mundy is heading to Fiji.

It is his first overseas job since breaking his neck four months ago, coming just weeks after he got out of the metal halo needed to fuse his spine.

Dennis, 50, was celebrating son Finn's birthday when he broke three vertebrae jumping into a foam pit at the party.

The facility where he was injured has since closed down, but Dennis spent an excruciating 24 hours not knowing if he would walk again and gained an appreciation of what it is like to be the patient rather than rescuer.


"It was surreal," he says, "like an out-of-body experience."

Dennis is chairman of Surf Life Saving New Zealand's lifeguard advisory committee for the eastern region and has decades of experience as a lifeguard. He helped with the searches for 5-year-old Jack Dixon and 17-year-old Hamish Rieger, both of whom were swept into the sea and drowned at Mount Maunganui.

As a veteran of advanced paramedic training, Dennis and wife Tania Bui also run a company called Pacific Medicare which teaches emergency first aid to workers in New Zealand and overseas.

Dennis Mundy meets Syrian refugee children at a camp in Lebanon. Photo/supplied
Dennis Mundy meets Syrian refugee children at a camp in Lebanon. Photo/supplied

In 2008, the Mount-based firm won a contract to teach first aid to staff at the United Nations Development Programme in Pakistan, beating large international providers from Germany and the United States to the job.

Pacific Medicare had already been operating in Fiji, teaching first aid to resort and government staff, and the UNDP contract quickly evolved into work for other organisations including Unicef, the UN World Food Programme, Relief International, and the International Organization for Migration.

It was the beginning of a journey for Dennis into some of the most dangerous places on Earth - countries he calls "high risk, high security" - and since 2009, he has worked in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Papua New Guinea, as well as doing four contracts in Pakistan.

While in Iraq last year, he met Syrians fleeing Isis, including a family with five children under 5 who had 35 relatives slaughtered by the militant Islamic group.

Dennis' son Finn was just 10 months old when he left the first time for Pakistan, his initial impressions of the capital Islamabad are hard to forget.

"You're met with Kalashnikovs everywhere."

Dennis talks to staff at a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon. Photo/supplied
Dennis talks to staff at a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon. Photo/supplied

Dennis was tasked with teaching first aid to the UNDP staff in the wake of a disastrous earthquake.

"We were going into towns that out of 2000 buildings, six buildings were left."

The contract was for three weeks but stretched to three months, Dennis saying every day in such environments puts you at risk of insurgent attack.

While the biggest injury of his life ended up happening a kilometre from home, during his time in overseas conflict zones Dennis has been shot at, seen people ripped apart by bomb blasts, and contracted the severe gastro illness shigella.

The organisations he works for provide a driver and armed security, the team usually numbers five, including himself, but the last time he was in Pakistan there were 47 guards hired to ensure his safety.

Dennis says the biggest threat in Pakistan is the threat of kidnapping by street gangs.

The street gang will just chuck you in the boot and they'll drive you around until they find the Taliban. The Taliban will pay them US $500 for me. The Taliban will then negotiate with Al Qaeda and that's a $5000 tag for them. That's good money for the Taliban.


Travel happens in armoured vehicles and Dennis must often travel to isolated compounds. He says single vehicles are preferable to convoys to avoid attracting unwanted attention from militants with sophisticated intelligence networks and roadside bombs. "We try to keep our footprint very small."

Once, when teaching in the far north of Pakistan, he had to pack up and leave after an American woman was decapitated by the Taliban 3km from the site he was working. He was also in a compound that came under attack from insurgents and spent 45 minutes in a concrete bunker while guards returned fire, while in Iraq, he worked scarily close to the Isis front line.

"We were told that the Isis border was 24km away and we thought that was safe enough [but] when we landed on the ground, we found it was 18km. And then when we actually got out, it was within 11."

So Dennis must be an adrenaline junkie to put himself in such situations?

"He's more of an educational junkie," says wife Tania. "He makes friends with everyone."

Dennis says the reward for him is imparting skills that can save lives, whether to lifeguards in the Bay, people working in war zones, New Zealand companies and organisations, or Fijian resorts.

Two gardeners he taught first aid to in Fiji helped guests who suffered heart attacks, while a Whakatane lifeguard he trained in CPR saved someone at a rugby field. A group in Peshawar, Pakistan, wrote him a note after some of their counterparts were killed in a bomb blast. "Thank you so much," it read. "We used those skills to triage."

A former high school teacher, Dennis says language provides few barriers to teaching first aid because Pacific Medicare's philosophy is about hands-on learning and tailoring courses to each client.

He travels with 120kg to 150kg of equipment when overseas, and says teaching in places like Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan tends to focus on preventing blood loss in the face of insurgent attacks.

He has done drills with live ammunition being fired at a vehicle to teach security staff how to tourniquet a victim while moving and confined.

Often the people he trains are security detail for UN and embassy officials, and Pacific Medicare has invested heavily in specialised gear including tools for intraosseous infusion, a technique used to inject fluid and medication directly into bone marrow when intravenous access is not feasible.

Trying to put an IV in someone out there when the s***'s hit the fan, you've got less than a 7 per cent chance of it actually working


He says the people he meets overseas live with extreme adversity and they make his job worthwhile.

"What you find is, the more horrible the environment, the nicer the people. Afghanistan was 3 degrees when I was there. It was mud. I counted one tree in Kabul. There's poverty everywhere. You smell the s*** on the road, and yet, these guys were offering me their curries for lunch. It's just humbling."

While he gets joy from helping others, in April, Dennis was the one who needed help. Upside down and motionless in the foam pit, he knew he was in trouble. "I was paralysed for about two minutes [and] I was cognisant at that stage I could only breathe out. Shortly before that, I heard three cracks."

Kids continued to jump into the pit until one of Finn's friends realised something was wrong and got a dad from the party, who hauled Dennis out. He says the care he received from doctors and ambulance staff throughout his ordeal was exemplary - "If I was to give them a mark out of 10, I'd give them a 12" - and reinforced his belief in the importance of first aid training.