Retiring shire paramedic ‘a true gentleman’

Paramedic Jeff Gilchrist has encountered many challenging patients in his career, but none more than the late media magnate Kerry Packer.

Jeff and his partner had been appointed as medical minders to Mr Packer following his cardiac arrest in 1989 - and spent two weeks living by their wits.

“His favourite game was ‘lose the paramedics’. He had about 10 exits out of the house and we’d chase after him with all our equipment like ducks. It was a full-time job just keeping up with him,” he said.

On Friday, December 2, the Grays Point resident will retire after more than 44 years with NSW Ambulance.

He will finish as one of the organisation’s highest ranking officers, the Deputy Director of Operations for Sydney.

Chief Supt Gilchrist started in May 1972 and was based first at Lane Cove then at Manly station.

Back then ambulance officers were largely stretcher bearers with senior first aid skills who delivered patients to hospital.

He said that, in those days on-road emergency equipment was in its early stages. Equipped with his toolmaking skills, he made bulk storage cabinets for the intensive care vehicles, among other innovations.

“We needed new cervical collars so I bought Perspex, cut the contours out and shaped, smoothed and polished it with toothpaste and Brasso, then sent it to the mould makers and they made foam cervical collars for us,” he said.

In 1989, he was introduced to a patient who would have a major impact on his life, Kerry Packer. Mr Packer was playing polo at Warwick Farm when he suffered a cardiac arrest and was resuscitated by paramedics with a defibrillator. Mr Packer was admitted to hospital, but the stay did not last long.

“Mr Packer was a terrible patient. He was a very straight forward person; no frills; you knew exactly where you stood. After a week, he demanded to get out of hospital. The doctor said he could go, but only if he took a team with him who had resuscitation skills,’’ he said.

“The hospital contacted my boss and asked for a couple of paramedics to look after ‘a VIP heart patient’. The boss rang downstairs to the paramedics and by sheer luck, I picked up.

“He said, ‘Get all your equipment together and be at Sydney Airport at 4 o’clock this afternoon. Take whomever you want’. So I nominated Paul Featherstone and that’s how it happened.

“We arrived at the airport and a helicopter’s there waiting. At this stage we still didn’t know who we were looking after. We loaded all our gear into the helicopter and put the defibrillator and everything under the seats and then Kerry Packer starts advancing on us.

“He looked in the helicopter at all the kits and said, ‘What’s all this? Get it out!’ We said, ‘If you something happens to you, we’ll need it.’ He said, ‘Oh, righto. Well, get in!’ I thought, ‘We’re in trouble here’.”

The two paramedics flew to Mr Packer’s property at Ellerston, near Scone, where they spent the next two weeks providing around-the-clock supervision.

“He’d go into his office and work all night. We’d stand outside with all our kits, waiting for him to go to bed,’’ he said.

“Ultimately, he just wanted to be by himself. He’d go down to the stables and saddle his horses and ride off into the distance. I’d never ridden before, so I’m on this horse with my gear hanging over the sides, trying to hang on and nearly falling off in the high country.

“He was an incredible person. He’d walk into a room and people would be taken over by his character, his sheer presence. He was also very generous. He insisted we eat with him and his family – his wife Roslyn and children Gretel and James. He just loved his family and they adored him. He would go down to the club and stand at the bar with James, with his arm around his shoulders and laugh and joke.”

Several months later,  he was asked to return to oversee the Australian polo championships which became an annual pilgrimage for the next nine years until Mr Packer’s death in 2005.

“Paul and I went to his memorial service at the Opera House. We were terribly sad for the loss of a wonderful man but felt incredibly privileged to have known him,” he said.

He has been involved in numerous natural disaster efforts including the 2002 and 2005 Bali bombings, and Banda Aceh following the tsunami in 2004.

“The 2002 bombing was terrible because we had so many injured people, mostly young people; a lot of kids left with no parents. The devastation of the Indian Ocean tsunami was just enormous; beyond experience and comprehension. I couldn’t believe how many bodies there were in the street; hundreds of bodies floating in the river. We went in and took over a private hospital with a medical surgical team, operating on wounds,’’ he said.

He was appointed to his current role in 2010, with administration over 17 stations and almost 500 paramedics.

NSW Ambulance Commissioner Dominic Morgan had high praise for his colleague. 

“In life you come across a handful of people who are universally regarded as the ultimate professional and a true gentleman,’’ he said.

“Jeff Gilchrist is one of those people and I regard him as a personal friend. There are few paramedics in NSW that have not been touched positively in some way by his calm and consistent mentoring and development of others.

“Without exaggeration, I would not be in my role today without the guidance and mentoring of Jeff Gilchrist  over the years. He is a role model to all and lives and models the very best of values of the NSW Ambulance. We wish him all the best in his retirement and the future.”

Mr Gilchrist will spend his retirement visiting family and travelling around Australia.

“I’ve been proud to be a paramedic, to provide that first point of care to make a person feel better. I’ve also been privileged to work with some incredible people - working shoulder to shoulder with individuals who would give their life to save yours. That’s the psyche of paramedics and I’ll leave knowing our community is in very good hands,’’ he said.

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