Support workers help sick and injured people live at home with compassion and skill.

Preventing often frightening life threatening situations is all part of the job for Debbie Matt.

Matt, who is based in the Bay of Plenty, is one of 5,500 HealthCare New Zealand support workers who look after sick and injured people by helping them to live at home.

While saving a life is no small thing - support workers like Matt face this on a daily basis - neither is the routine work which improves the quality of someone's life.

To this end support workers bring their skill and compassion to clients in homes all across the country.

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Most of the people Matt supports have tetraplegia and have suffered a spinal cord injury.Those facing this predicament can struggle with breathing, pressure injuries and autonomic dysreflexia (uncontrollable high blood pressure), all of which can cause life threatening situations.

On one occasion, Matt had a client whose catheter had come out – a frightening situation because there was a real danger to the client if not handled immediately. Save for a rookie support worker she was training, Matt was on her own.

"I was able to stay completely calm and insert a new catheter," she says. "I was so thankful for the training I received previously from district nurses; it helped me prepare for a moment like that."

HealthCare New Zealand provides support workers with extensive training in order to professionally support their clients. Some of this training is in partnership with community nurses, physiotherapists and polytechs - and was helpful for Matt, who had previously worked in administration jobs.

"I have always been drawn to caregiving roles and I love what I do. With the training I've received it gives me the skills and confidence to carry out this role," she says.

A typical day will see Matt help her clients get out of bed, wash, shower and dress. A session of passive exercises often follows, prior to breakfast. A physiotherapist usually designs an exercise programme for individual clients, which the support worker then follows.

Without the help from support workers, many people might be forced to live in residential support facilities such as retirement homes or hospitals. "We give people the opportunity to stay in their own homes and lead a more independent life," says Matt.

The needs of those with spinal injuries and other significant accident-related or medical conditions can be high. Sean Conroy, divisional chief executive of HealthCare New Zealand, says his team are often told by clients they couldn't stay at home without the support worker's help.

"The pressure on secondary health services including hospital, emergency department and age-related residential care is growing as the population ages," he says. "More people are requiring health, disability and rehabilitative support."

Conroy says these needs are also increasingly complex, and the role of support workers has grown. While the work can still include tasks like housework and personal care such as showering, registered health professionals are increasingly working alongside support workers to provide enhanced services that help their clients lead safe and more independent lives in the home of their choice.

Matt says helping people with tetraplegia maximise their independence is one of the most rewarding parts of her work.

"Many of those with whom I work previously led active lives, and still can with some help," she says. "One is on several committees but cannot drive – I help them get from one meeting to the next so they can actively serve in their community.

"Another client has a specially designed bike to ride. Again, with my help, they are able to enjoy the outdoor pleasures that some of us take for granted.

"It gives me great satisfaction to see the immense joy on my clients' faces when they enjoy some of the activities they had done prior to their injury."