The young Aussie paramedic who dived into the deep end
The streets of London were so desolate you could almost imagine the tumbleweed rolling down the road at Piccadilly or Brick Lane, past the vacant black taxicabs and the red double-decker buses. In the middle of the city’s first wave of COVID-19, Billy Peters was there with his London Ambulance Service crew, responding to emergency call-outs like he’d been doing it all his life.
“London was like an abandoned film set in that first lockdown,” says the Aussie-born paramedic, who arrived in the UK in early 2020 with a backpack and a thirst for new experiences.
But while the city streets were eerily quiet and lacking their normal bustle, the wail of ambulance sirens was disturbingly frequent.
“By the time I got out on the road in mid-February, everyone in the service knew something big was coming, we just didn’t quite grasp how big it would be,” says Billy, 22.
“At the end of March, the daily cases were doubling. We’d normally get about 5000 calls a day throughout all of London, and suddenly that had doubled. It happened really, really quickly.”
Billy, meanwhile, had been “thrown in the deep end”. He had graduated with a Bachelor of Paramedicine at ACU’s Melbourne Campus in late 2018, and worked in the city’s safe-injecting room for a year before packing his bags for the UK.
In normal circumstances, he’d have spent his first weeks in the ambulance service shadowing an experienced paramedic. But COVID-19 had made that impossible.
“Because the service was under so much stress, they changed the skill matrix, and that meant I could work with someone who wasn’t a qualified paramedic,” Billy says.
“I’d suddenly found myself as the most senior skilled person in the crew, and it meant the decision-making flowed onto me, which was pretty intense.
“I’d done university placements back home in Victoria, but you could easily do a nightshift there without even turning a wheel. Over here in London in the middle of that first wave, it was job, to job, to job. It was daunting, for sure.”
Alongside that nervous energy, Billy immediately felt a sense of duty that is common amongst frontline health workers.
He’d arrive home at the end of his shift to cheers and rounds of applause from his neighbours, all showing their gratitude for the National Health Service (NHS) employees managing the deadly outbreak.
“I struggled to wrap my head around it during the first lockdown … it was quite humbling,” he says.
“Because I’m not English and I’m really new to the country, it was overwhelming the amount of attention that NHS workers were receiving for the work they were doing.
“For 10 weeks in a row, you’d get home and all your neighbours are outside and clapping, and they’d have wooden spoons and pots and pans, and people would be cheering and going off for a whole minute. I was just so emotional and overwhelmed. It definitely spurred us on.”
A paramedic’s diary
On Billy Peters’ bedside table is a diary he’s kept since the beginning of his time in London.
“I tend to write everything down,” he says, as he flicks through and finds a page from early on in the pandemic, a memory jolted.
“There are lots of things that come to mind but they can be quite difficult to share as well.”
He recalls being called to a care home where a young woman with a disability was unwell.
“It was clearly coronavirus and she was knocking on death’s door, and the carers explained that she’d just come there from her home last week,” he says.
“When I asked them why, they said, ‘Well, both her parents died of coronavirus’. It was really sad and such a shame. That was when things were really starting to kick off, and we didn’t know much about the virus at the time. Then it hammered on from there.”
With London in lockdown and the case-rate climbing, Billy toyed with the idea of coming home to Australia.
“I’m over here with my long-term girlfriend, and when something as huge as this happens, you definitely reassess things,” he says.
“The way I’ve thought of it is, if we chose to go home, I wouldn’t have been learning so much and been exposed to these experiences.
“Even through lockdown, when the virus was getting worse and all that, it was still all new and different, and we wouldn’t have got that back home. It hasn’t quite gone to plan, but we won’t come home until we feel we’ve left no stone unturned.”
Billy’s diary sparks some happy memories, too. Like the time a bad day turned good.
He was in a park with his crew when their lunchbreak was cut short by an emergency call. In the mad rush to leave, Billy had left his wallet behind.
“In London, if you drop your wallet, it’s gone before it’s even hit the floor,” he says.
Billy was at the hospital hours later when he noticed it was missing.
“I was so gutted. It was actually my grandfather’s wallet, so it’s really special and I just didn’t know how I was going to get over it.”
Later that day, he got an email from his dad in Melbourne. “My dad asks, ‘Did you lose your wallet?’ And I’m like, ‘What? How do you know?’”
The woman who spotted the wallet found his dad’s business card inside. She emailed him and quickly got in touch with Billy.
“When we finished for the day, we drove back to where she lived. She was so lovely and just amazing. That was during the peak time where everyone was getting behind the NHS and everything, and it was such a nice feeling. It really made my day.”
Having what it takes
Aside from coronavirus, Billy has had some diverse experiences in his time as a paramedic. He gets called out to anything from stabbings and house fires to stubbed toes and hangovers.
He admits that, in the early stages, he found some things shocking, but he’s quickly learnt that paramedics “don’t really have time to get grossed out by anything”.
“I think most people that get into the job, certainly everyone I went to uni with, they’ve had some kind of experience growing up where an ambulance was needed, and they’ve been the person with a level head while everyone else is freaking out,” Billy says.
“That was definitely me; I always found it really easy to keep a cool head and really fulfilling to be the person that people turn to.”
Years as a surf lifesaving instructor at Anglesea on the Great Ocean Road exposed Billy to the types of situations that are commonplace in an ambulance.
“I did lifesaving all through my teenage years and have also taught lifesaving courses, and I grew up with heaps of sisters, too, so there was always something going wrong in the house,” he quips.
But nothing could have prepared him for being thrust into the frontline as a health worker in a once-in-a-century pandemic.
“Getting through those crazy first six months, I think it’s been good for me, and my confidence since then has just skyrocketed,” Billy says.
“When you rock up and something has happened and it’s the worst day in that person’s life, but they breathe a big sigh of relief when you walk in the door, it’s a big responsibility and I don’t take it lightly.
“There’ve been some tough times, for sure, but there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing. I might not have done all the travel I had hoped for by now, but I’m still on the other side of the world doing my dream job. No complaints from me.”
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