Vikki Harvey, 50, and Beverly Geronimos, 59, are volunteer paramedics, who are on-call whenever they are home on Coochiemudlo Island. Picture: Mark Cranitch.
Vikki Harvey, 50, and Beverly Geronimos, 59, are volunteer paramedics, who are on-call whenever they are home on Coochiemudlo Island. Picture: Mark Cranitch.

The women who volunteer to save lives

How far would you go to protect your little slice of paradise and the community you share it with? In the course of everyday life, of working, making a home and raising a family in the suburbs, what steps would you be prepared to take to keep your community safe?

It's a question I ponder long after meeting Vikki Harvey and Beverly Geronimos on a weekend jaunt to Coochiemudlo Island, a 10-minute ferry ride into the southern part of Moreton Bay, across from the suburb of Victoria Point on the Redlands Coast.

 

Beverly Geronimos, 59, and Vikki Harvey, 50, are volunteer paramedics, who are on-call whenever they are home on Coochiemudlo Island. Picture: Mark Cranitch.
Beverly Geronimos, 59, and Vikki Harvey, 50, are volunteer paramedics, who are on-call whenever they are home on Coochiemudlo Island. Picture: Mark Cranitch.

 

The uniformed duo is selling raffle tickets outside the local cafe, raising money to buy medical equipment for the island, which is now home to about 750 residents and popular with day-trippers for its beaches, fishing, kayaking and bushwalks.

There are no emergency services stationed on the quiet 5sq km island - named for the exposed red stone along the shore line (the indigenous Yuggera word "kutchi" means red and "mudlo" means stone) - just a surf lifesaving club, auxiliary fire service and these two women.

Harvey and Geronimos are First Responders in the Queensland Ambulance Service, volunteers who juggle busy lives with being on-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, to provide emergency care until the arrival of paramedic crews from the mainland. It's a vital role the long-time friends and neighbours have filled for the past seven-and-a-half years.

"This is our home,'' says Harvey, 50, simply. "It's not only community here, it's probably more like a big family, if you narrow it down."

Geronimos, 58, adds, "Whenever I'm home, I'm on-call. I feel like I'm kind of paying it forward a bit. I'd like to know that if my husband, my kids or I were somewhere and needed help, that someone would help us."

After a beat she glances at Harvey, laughing. "People are going to think we're weird, I mean who does that?"

 

MY ISLAND HOME

A teenage Harvey was enjoying her first visit to Coochie - as it is fondly known - with her family when her mum Denise Priddy disappeared with a yabby pump, returning after an hour to ask her and younger brother Len: "I've found a house, how would you kids like to live here?"

Within two months of their resounding "Yes!", the family packed up their West End house and made the island their home, commuting to work. While Len, 46, now lives at Hope Island, on the Gold Coast, neither mother nor daughter ever left.

Harvey, a self-employed beauty therapist for 20 years, and husband Greg, 58, a crane driver and trainer, were married in the old homestead restaurant - slated to be redeveloped into a townhouse complex - and bought a house a few doors down from Priddy, 76, now retired, where they raise their three boys, Joshua, 21, Elijah, 19, and Ethan, 14.

"One day I ran into the original First Responder on the island at the jetty and she just looked so tired. I just thought, 'Oh Ellie, you look really tired, what's going on?' She goes, 'Oh, I'm doing this (job) all by myself, would you like to help?' Yeah, I'll help, I'll join. I thoroughly enjoyed it," recalls Harvey.

 

QVikki Harvey, 50, and Beverly Geronimos, 59, are volunteer paramedics, who are on-call whenever they are home on Coochiemudlo Island. Denise Foley (centre), at the Curlew Cafe (where a defibrillator is kept) - local real estate agent - was the original first responder. Picture: Mark Cranitch.
QVikki Harvey, 50, and Beverly Geronimos, 59, are volunteer paramedics, who are on-call whenever they are home on Coochiemudlo Island. Denise Foley (centre), at the Curlew Cafe (where a defibrillator is kept) - local real estate agent - was the original first responder. Picture: Mark Cranitch.

 

She completed six months training with the Queensland Ambulance Service and worked in the role for several years, toying with the idea of a career as a paramedic before becoming an enrolled nurse. Harvey works three days a week in a Spring Hill surgery.

"My grandmother, when she was 86 years old, one evening went to the toilet, tripped on her way back up the hallway and lay there on a cold winter's night for about six hours," she says.

"She did have one of those safety pendants, but it was on her bedside table. She was in that position with a broken hip until the gentleman next door realised she hadn't hung her washing out before 8am, came in and found her. That stuck in my head for years, and I think that's what my interest in nursing and helping people stemmed from."

It's been more than 14 years since Geronimos and husband Steve, 70, moved to Coochie with sons Stephen, 34, and Jack, 26. Their home doubles as an office for their construction company

"I always wanted to be a nurse. It was about meeting new people and being able to give back, to be able to help people in the moment when they're at their absolute worst," she says.

"I tried but couldn't get into uni when I was younger, so I stayed home to run the business. Then the Brisbane Mater Hospital brought their nursing training back into the hospital and I thought, 'Oh, this is perfect'. I thought, 'I have to have a go at this', and I got in.''

A year after gaining her qualifications, she accepted an invitation from Harvey - a friend she'd worked alongside at the local resort restaurant - to become a First Responder. "It's a relationship that has brought us closer together, because we share the same goals …" Harvey begins, allowing Geronimos to finish with, "… and we do have differences, but we are mature enough to bring it back together afterwards, aren't we?"

 

READY FOR ACTION

"Would you like to know what our theme song is?" Geronimos asks.

Laughing and dancing, she and Harvey launch into their spirited take of British producer Mark Ronson's 2015 hit collaboration with American rock star Bruno Mars, Uptown Funk:

"I'm too hot, hot damn, call the police and the fireman; I'm too hot, hot damn, say my name, you know who I am …"

Everyone living on the island knows them, just as they know everyone on the island - if not by name, then at least to nod and wave to.

Whenever someone on Coochie rings ­triple-0 for an ambulance, Harvey and Geronimos each receive a page and then radio in to confirm they are responding to the case.

Simultaneously, a paramedic crew is dispatched from the mainland. While it can take that crew at least 30 minutes to arrive on the

island depending on the running of the passenger ferry and vehicle barge - the closest stations are at Redland Bay and Cleveland - Harvey and Geronimos can be on scene within five to 10 minutes.

 

Coochiemudlo Island. Picture: Mark Cranitch.
Coochiemudlo Island. Picture: Mark Cranitch.

 

Depending on the seriousness of the case, the duo - equipped with an ambulance and support vehicle - will stabilise the patient, report back to the QAS emergency call centre and wait for the paramedics to arrive, or transport the patient to meet paramedics at the jetty on Main Beach.

For the most serious cases, a helicopter dispatched from the Princess Alexandra Hospital can land on the sporting club's oval within eight minutes.

Volunteers play a vital role in ensuring universal access to emergency medical help in a state as vast as Queensland, says QAS authority Tony Armstrong.

Armstrong, the Acting Assistant Commissioner for Metro South, says more than 1600 volunteers work across the state, including the 141 First Responders, such as Vikki Harvey and Beverly Geronimos on Coochiemudlo Island.

"First Responders provide a vital link in the community to get that advanced first aid treatment for someone in a time of need, until an ambulance can get there,'' Armstrong says.

"Especially if it's a cardiac arrest or something, they can get to them quite timely to provide defibrillation or whatever is needed, until we can get there - which in some of these rural locations can take up to 40 minutes."

Harvey and Geronimos can go weeks without a call-out or respond to four in a single day, treating everything from suspected heart attacks and strokes, car accident victims, burns, stabbings, broken bones, marine stings and drug-related cases to something as simple as a painful boil.

"We haven't delivered a baby yet," laughs Harvey. "Wouldn't that be an absolute blessing, to deliver a baby who is a true Coochiemudlian!"

Geronimos has commandeered a passing jet ski to reach a sailor who'd fallen and knocked himself unconscious on his nearby boat, while Harvey has apologetically cringed as she rushed to a late-night case and ran over the island's legendary resident scrub python Sid. (He's still hale and hearty, they're quick to assure.)

They've customised knickers to preserve the modesty of a late-night bather who tripped and impaled her bottom on a stick running to her backyard spa, and comforted a severely shocked woman with mobility issues who spent three days stuck in her bathtub until finally rescued.

Spending a day riding along with the dynamic duo, it is clear they are very protective of their community - and not just its physical health.

The women recall sitting with grieving families for hours while waiting for the coroner to transport a loved one.

Burying the beloved pet of a resident who refused to go to hospital until

he knew his faithful companion was resting peacefully.

Empowering a husband to confidently administer the regular injections his ill wife needed.

They've seen elderly residents returning from hospital on the ferry safely home to their front door.

A patient distressed at being too ill to take his daily walk was taken to his favourite beach to wait for paramedics to arrive.

When residents were left reeling after two suicide cases in a week, Harvey organised for speakers to visit the newly established Men's Shed and distributed information to help build mental health awareness and resilience.

Four defibrillators, placed at key points around the island, have been in place for several months, though fortunately have yet to be used.

"Now I'm working more and there's only Bev on the island - and she can sometimes be off the island, that's where (the idea for defibs) all stemmed from.

If I'm not here and Bev's not here, there's no one to help," says Harvey.

"This is our back yard. Paramedic crews on the mainland, they might live in Manly but be stationed in Beenleigh.

"They're not working in the direct vicinity of where they live as well, and (regularly) coming across people they know - though obviously there are occasions where that does happen."

 

GRATEFUL LOCALS

Tired after a long day at work one night last year, Harvey jumped at husband Greg's suggestion of a relaxed family dinner at the local cafe.

An eye-rolling Geronimos reckons she should have been suspicious the moment all members of her family agreed to join.

Still, neither woman expected to look up at the clinking of cutlery on glass, across the packed dining area, to see locals Brad Wilson and Steve Shelley holding an oversized cheque for $3000, complete with blue bow, in their name.

Wilson and Shelley, known for their love of a coldie and a smoke, bet each other they couldn't kick the two habits for three months - a wager a large group of mates was happy to accept, and ultimately lose, for a good cause.

"We were crying, saying over the table, oh, we can buy a defib for that, we can buy this with that.

We get up there and they say, no, no, you are not buying anything, this is for you to take a break (as thanks) for all you do for the community.

They would only hand over the money to Flight Centre. The community paid us back with a holiday to Thailand!" Harvey says.

Geronimos adds, "It was mind-blowing. It was a surprise to have so many people turn up to support us, down at the presentation, as well; just beautiful."

Community support is regularly shown with cards, flowers, champagne, chocolates and money left in the cafe to pay for their morning coffee.

"There's not many people who want to do what we do … It's a lot of training, a lot of time out of your day, out of your year, to do this," Geronimos says.

The pair is now training a third member of the team, second-year Queensland University of Technology paramedic science student Jacqueline van Akker, 19, who has lived on Coochie with her parents and two sisters for nearly a decade.

 

Beverly Geronimos, 59, and Vikki Harvey, 50, with Jacqueline Van Akker (right) training ambo. Pic Mark Cranitch.
Beverly Geronimos, 59, and Vikki Harvey, 50, with Jacqueline Van Akker (right) training ambo. Pic Mark Cranitch.

"I've wanted to be a paramedic since I attended a QAS Open Day in Year 10. I just love that it's not your normal job doing the same thing over and over again, that it's a little bit unpredictable and fast-paced at times," says van Akker, adding her twin Georgia will start the same course next year.

"I thought (joining the First Responders) would be an awesome opportunity to get involved in the community, help the community and get some experience.

I'm still at the ride-along stage but I've been on a few jobs with Vikki, and it's been interesting."

In many ways, the pair is humble about their contribution and struggle to feel they can adequately explain just why they've filled this role for so long.

"I could say it's the adrenaline rush but just to be able to help someone when they're in their darkest hour, when they need someone, especially the elderly, those living alone … I'll keep doing it until I can't," Harvey says.

It's a sentiment Geronimos immediately echoes: "I'll keep doing it until I can't."



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