Under the scorching light of the Australian outback sun, two golden skinned, scrawny boys dragged a sodden, lifeless sheep up the muddy riverbank.
“You pump the heart!” The younger cousin panted, stooping without hesitation to cover the snout of the upturned beast with his mouth.
The exuberant dogs responsible for drowning the neighbours pet ewe poked their noses in excitedly around the ‘kill’. Caleb kicked at them without missing a breath.
“I think it’s too dead!”
“Just keep pumping”, gasped Caleb between puffs on the frothy maw, pulling the animals limp tongue to one side to keep it from choking.
“When that damn sheep staggered up the hill, that was my first experience of saving a life I guess”, laughs Caleb in his relaxed country way, “And maybe my first kiss too…”
That fortunate sheep wasn’t to be the last creature Caleb McIntosh snatched from Death’s clutches, luckily for the rest of us. It wasn’t his last kiss either, luckily for him.
One of 6 children to a Mexican mother and Australian father, brought up on an 1000 acre dairy-then-cotton farm near Bourke; one of the most remote country towns in North-Western New South Wales, Australia, Caleb’s upbringing was far from typical. Homeschooled out of necessity; his siblings his classmates and his classroom, as often a campfire in the evening after hunting a roo as a desk and chair.
“I guess it was a bit unusual compared to growing up in a city for sure, but we loved it. It was more strange for us when we headed to town.”
“Because I definitely wasn’t white and wasn’t Aboriginal, the town kids decided we were Chinese. That’s the only other option they could think of.”
Growing up in this remote area, surrounded by harsh red dirt and dry scrubland, young Caleb had hardly ever even seen an ambulance. It didn’t occur to him until much later that he’d one day end up working on one, saving the lives of humans instead of sheep.
“I grew up seeing a lot of trauma; farm accidents and things like my dog getting ripped open by a roo, and I’d always take the lungs and hearts of animals we’d killed to my Mexican Grandfather to cook up.
“I was used to seeing the inside of things; the blood and guts have never worried me.”
And I guess I always wanted to help people, so eventually becoming a paramedic was a good match.”
I found Caleb doing exactly that; helping people in a little town in Western Queensland called Goondiwindi. I first met Caleb when he was studying at university, and hadn’t really seen him at all since those days, but Caleb is the kind of mate you know wont have changed much no matter how long it’s been since you saw him.
When I entered the station I was greeted by a bunch of friendly paramedics with their mouths muffled by delicious homemade cake, freshly cooked by someone’s wife, and an irritable white cockatoo named Elvis.
We wandered across the road to the pub and settled in to an evening in the life of a country paramedic, over a beer and a coke respectively.
“Being a paramedic out here, it ranges from days where the biggest drama is deciding what movie we should watch while we wait for jobs, to full on catastrophes where we’re dealing with multiple life and death situations, where I’m being called in to assist in open surgery right there in the ER or picking peoples bits out of farm machinery. It’s a job of extremes.”
Despite the considerable dangers inherent in the job, which range from motor vehicle accidents while speeding into oncoming traffic, to the risk of assault from patients under the influence of drugs or alcohol, Caleb is remarkably nonchalant. It seems for him these dangers are outweighed by the potential to assist the people he attends.
The dangers may even add to the appeal of the job I suspect. After all, this is the same guy I once saw climb a cliff the height of a 5 storey building without ropes over the freezing waters of a remote dam, then leap off back into the dark water below …
“I thought about becoming a doctor but I could never see myself sitting behind a desk, especially after the upbringing I had out on the land.”
As we sat and sipped our beverages in that Queensland pub, waiting for an emergency to call Caleb away from me and his young family to who-knows-what, I found myself looking around more thoughtfully at our fellow drinkers. I asked him if seeing people die on a daily basis changed how he sees the world around him.
“It does change your perspective on things. I see miracles and tragedies every day. Sometimes we turn up to a car where there’s literally no visible space for a body inside the mangled steel, and the bloke who was driving is standing beside it having a smoke waiting for us when we arrive. Other times the car looks fine and everyone inside is dead. I’ve become very practical about life: it’s not something to waste.”
“I’m not scared of death; it’s a reality and how you die is not important. What I’ve noticed in this job is that our society is obsessed with staying alive instead of living.”
I won a meat tray that night in the pub raffle. After all Caleb’s stories the raw flesh looked particularly unappetizing. Later on Caleb was called out a few times. I heard him sneak out of his house without waking his wife and two baby boys. His choice to do this paramedic shit has saved a lot of lives in the last few years and brought him a lot of fulfillment, but has also taken a lot from him and his colleagues.
“The shift work is hard. I’m away from the people I love a lot and I’ll see them even less as the boys grow up. But I don’t regret doing it for a second. In the end, what’s cooler than being a paramedic? And it puts the rest of life’s worries in perspective too.”