George Town intensive care paramedic reflects on career

COMMITTED: George Town intensive care paramedic Mike Barrenger recently celebrated 40 years of service with Ambulance Tasmania. The 60-year-old hopes to continue in the role until he is 65. Picture: Phillip Biggs
COMMITTED: George Town intensive care paramedic Mike Barrenger recently celebrated 40 years of service with Ambulance Tasmania. The 60-year-old hopes to continue in the role until he is 65. Picture: Phillip Biggs

A diverse range of rewarding and saddening experiences have littered Mike Barrenger’s 40 years as a full-time paramedic.

His career has seen him work abroad and deliver about 30 babies, three of which we born in one 48-hour period.

He was called to the fatal heart attack of renowned journalist Richard Carleton during the  Beaconsfield mine collapse in 2006.

Mr Barrenger has always remembered receiving a thank-you card from Carleton’s family.

“That gets to you,” Mr Barrenger said.  

He said he appreciated the diversity of his unpredictable, interesting work, which has involved attending cases at sea among its diverse challenges. 

Mr Barrenger is an intensive care paramedic at the George Town Ambulance Tasmania base.

The 60-year-old celebrated the anniversary of his 40 years' service last week.

He moved to George Town from Launceston in 1984. He has spent the 32 years since working there. 

Mr Barrenger, who was born and raised in Launceston, began his career as a sheet metal work apprentice.  

After a "nasty" fatal accident occurred in Launceston, he "bit the bullet" and visited the ambulance station to offer his volunteering services. 

He volunteered for 20 months and said he realised he "wasn't really going to get anywhere with sheet metal work". 

He joined the ambulance service full-time 40 years ago, and completed further training in Melbourne. 

An exchange program took him to work overseas in New York, Seattle and Singapore. 

Mr Barrenger said the volunteers who had helped him over the decades and the reliable after-hours George Town medical care team were a “brilliant” support network to have. 

“Over the years, we’ve had hundreds of volunteers … I couldn’t do my job without volunteers,” Mr Barrenger said. 

He works four-day shifts, where he is always on call, alongside volunteers with shorter shifts. 

The bond Mr Barrenger has formed with the ambulance service’s familiar “frequent fliers” brought a wide smile to his face.

He laughed that the regular patients, often older residents of the region living with chronic conditions, often bantered with Mr Barrenger while receiving his care. 

Over the years, we’ve had hundreds of volunteers … I couldn’t do my job without volunteers.

George Town intensive care paramedic Mike Barrenger, who has just completed 40 years of service

He said the victims of fatal road accidents and sudden infant death syndrome were among those deaths that had affected him most. But he has attended both less frequently over time. 

He said there was “tremendous support” in place, and admitted to having sought professional help. 

“Sometimes just the tiniest thing and you’ll crack, but it’ll bring back all this stuff that has happened … and it just bites you,” he said.

“Most of the time you can get rid of it and you hang it out to dry and walk away from it, but sometimes it sticks.

“You’re not being a big boy by trying to take it all on yourself.”

He said his family had also provided an invaluable source of support. Seeing people at their most vulnerable also meant delving deep within himself to form a connection.

“It could be domestic violence, it could be a person doing self-harm or taking an overdose or something like that,” he said. 

“You really open up to these people to get them to open up to you.

“You share stories in the 40, 45 minute trip to Launceston, and then a few days later you’ll see them down the street and they’ll totally ignore you.

“That gets to you.”

Mr Barrenger said medical advances had made his job much easier. 

“Some treatments that were real taboo in the old days are now front-line stuff,” he said. 

He pointed to giving people suffering a heart attack an aspirin as a first step, whereas patients were once given oxygen, which he said was about “all we could do”. 

“We had no drugs or any such things like that,” Mr Barrenger said. 

“When I started out all we had was a little bit of ... laughing gas as pain relief and oxygen.”

He commended campaigns and legislation aimed to protect frontline workers from assaults. Mr Barrenger said he had dealt with low-level aggression on the job, and that it was always a possibility. 

He said it was “annoying” when people could not take responsibility for their own actions due to ingesting too many recreational drugs or drinking alcohol excessively. Mr Barrenger hopes to remain in his role for another four years, until he is 65 years old. 

“I enjoy the job, and enjoy the situation where I am now,” he said. 

“Whilst I’m happy working in this community, and it is a really good community to work in, I’ll stick with it.

“We’ve got all the support around and all that we’d need.”

Ambulance Tasmania chief executive Neil Kirby said Mr Barrenger had “diligently served the George Town community in providing emergency care and supporting the group of volunteers who work in the area”. 

“In addition to this he has also been an active member of the community supporting other emergency agencies such as SES Road Rescue and Tasfire,” Mr Kirby said. 

“Ambulance Tasmania congratulates him on achieving 40 years of service.”

  • If you need help, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636