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Holly’s a hero paramedic

Photo: Holly's story

Despite a difficult start at school, Holly’s determined to make a difference as a paramedic.

When Holly (20) is asked what her favourite type of call-out was during her first placement as a paramedic, her eyes instantly light up. “Oh, definitely major trauma!” she exclaims. “I’ve only been to one, but I loved it. Afterwards, they asked if I wanted counselling, but I said, ‘I don’t think I need it!’”

Sitting on a sunny bench outside St. George’s Hospital, it’s easy to see why Holly, who’s profoundly deaf and wears hearing aids, makes such a great paramedic. “I love helping people,” she says. “Oh, and I love having the blue lights on and getting to drive on the wrong side of the road!

“Even on jobs where it’s been really serious, it’s rewarding to know you’ve made a difference. Even though you’re a student, you know you’ve made a difference.”

Although Holly’s always wanted to work in medicine, she hasn’t always wanted to be a paramedic. “Growing up, I wanted to be a doctor,” she explains. “As a child, I spent a lot of time in hospital with glue ear, adenoids and tonsillitis, as well as problems with my hip. I wanted to pay forward what the doctors did for me.”

However, Holly – who was the only deaf student in her mainstream school and depends on lip-reading to communicate – struggled to learn from teachers who weren’t deaf aware. “I had a hard time with the science teachers in secondary school in particular,” she remembers. “One teacher would never face me while talking to the class or write anything on the board. Then, while the rest of the class went off in groups, she’d sit next to me and shout in my ear. My teaching assistant explained what support I needed, but it just didn’t happen.

“I struggled with concentration fatigue too. In the end, they told me to take my textbook and go and learn by myself. I taught myself for the whole of Year 11. I still did well, but I didn’t get the grades I needed to study the sciences at A-level.”

When she started Sixth Form, Holly was determined to turn things around. A biology teacher who helped students apply for medical school talked to her about her options. “She explained that applying to medical school would be very difficult and take a long time,” says Holly. “Even then, I might not get in. It was a tough conversation, but she was so supportive. We talked about alternative medical careers, like nursing, midwifery or paramedic science.”

With the help of her teacher, Holly applied to study paramedic science at St. George’s Hospital and was thrilled when she was offered a place. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic meant that the teaching for Holly’s first year was all online. Once again, she found herself struggling to follow lectures. Luckily, this time, she had a disability advisor to make sure her access needs were met.

When she started her first placement as a trainee paramedic, all Holly’s hard work paid off.

“I absolutely loved my placement!” says Holly. “I was a bit nervous about going onto the ambulance during the pandemic, as everyone was wearing masks and PPE, but the ambulance service managed to schedule my first two shifts with Richard Webb-Stevens, who’s London’s first deaf paramedic.

“It was amazing. He had loads of advice about things, like how to set the ambulance radio system to vibrate and how to communicate with patients. For example, he taught me that if I’m not sure I’ve heard a patient properly, I should repeat their answer. They’ll correct me if it’s wrong.

“Richard also told me that if colleagues want to contact him, they say his name three times to get his attention. He was really helpful and gave me his number, so I can ask more questions if I need.”

During her placement, Holly’s colleagues found different ways to communicate with her, either by wearing her radio aid underneath their PPE or by briefly lowering their masks to let her lip-read. “Communication is still the hardest part of the job,” explains Holly. “You could have all the knowledge, but when you get to an intense scene, it’s critical that you know what people are saying. Once colleagues know I’m deaf, they can lower their masks or use gestures to show what they need. It’s hard, but it’s something I can push past.”

Holly’s also found her deafness allows her to relate to deaf patients. “It’s always comforting for the patient to be able to relate to the paramedic. And on a practical level, if a patient is having trouble hearing me, I know to get down to their level and lower my mask to let them lip-read.

“My advice for another deaf young person interested in working in healthcare would be to be proactive,” says Holly. “Put yourself forward and offer to help your colleagues even when they haven’t asked. They’ll often return the favour by showing you how to perform a specific task.

“Be open about your deafness because people will help you. Apply for Disabled Students’ Allowances early and ask for everything you might need. There’s support available, you just have to ask.”

Looking back, Holly is glad her teacher suggested becoming a paramedic instead of a doctor. “I love being practical, and on placement I saw that paramedics spend more time out in the field, getting stuck in. They see everything! It’s definitely the job for me.”