An Interview with Stafford Wulff

· Interview

It is not often that you meet someone who impacts you right away but that was Stafford. Not long after we had met, we were being escorted from a high end restaurant by security following a misunderstanding. Whilst some people would not suffer the indignation of such an experience well, Stafford laughed uproariously, wished the patrons well and depart to the street. By the time we were outside, Stafford had befriend the security guards who had been tasked with our removal. That was Stafford.

I was fortunate to have known Stafford both in the paramedicine and expeditionary industries and only recently I managed to sit with him and interview him about his journey. I was unaware at the time that this was to be the last time I would sit with this great man and converse, but Stafford was someone who touched everyone he met, I am grateful to have known him.

An Interview with Stafford: Stubbornly Exceeding Expectations

Q. Where are you currently working and in what role?

A. Following my recent diagnoses, I elected to give up my recent full time role with SA Ambulance Service (SAAS). I am now working as a casual Ambulance Officer for SAAS and as a casual paramedicine tutor at Flinders University.

Q. Ok a lot was just said, can you share quickly who you are, what you have done, what has happened?

A. Sure. After ten years of firefighting in the UK, I moved to Australia and spent the next 8 years working in outdoor education and education in general, as a camp coordinator, running programs for students, adults, special interest groups to facilitate further learning, leadership skills and how to reconnect to the outdoors. The journey also took me overseas guiding to some amazing beautiful places, including Nepal, India, Costa Rica, Morocca and Namibia amongst others. I completed my paramedic degree at Flinders University in Adelaide whilst working as an ambulance officer, facilitating Wilderness First Aid courses and guiding overseas. After graduating in 2019 and after 6 months of the Paramedic internship I was forced to leave in order to spend time with my wife and other special people in my life, as my cancer progressed.

Q. So you were literally at the start of your paramedic career when disaster struck? How have you managed to stay involved with paramedicine?

A.Yeah it was two days after I started my internship that I got my diagnosis, but I had worked for SAAS since 2016. When I suddenly lost the ability to feel the end of my fingers, I stepped down from the fulltime paramedic role. These days, between the University work, being casual on road and being lucky enough that some people want me to help mentor them through there beginning of their internship means I have stayed involved.

Q. But what keeps you motivated to stay involved?

A. FOMO, seriously, I love the job, and I am very lucky that I have surrounded myself with people who love their job and inspire me to do better. The University role allows me to guide those becoming paramedics in the importance of the right mental attitudes to make a difference to the patients. Now that I am more regularly a patient than an attending, I feel it gives me an even better insight to what I believe is important when treating/dealing with patients.

Q. This journey you are on must be very confronting, how do you stay so positive?

A. Lego, lots of Lego and denial. Yes this journey has been very confronting, for so many reasons and even more so in these COVID times. Having said that I feel very lucky, I have been given time to move through this, unlike so many of our patients who have an MI or CVA etc. I have time to do this while able bodied, but I think the thing that allows me to stay positive is that I do not look back and say “I wish” I am lucky enough that when I reflect, I look back and go, I am not sure I could have fitted anymore in. I also make sure I have future goals to keep me distracted, marathon running, holidays, cycling and having positive family and friends around me.

Q. I understand you have started a scholarship; can you tell me about it?

A. At the end of 2020, I was chatting to my wife, Kirsty, about wanting to do something that would help others, help the people that I guess I connect to. Over the last 7/8 years I have been at Flinders University as a student or as a tutor and I can’t help notice the disparity between some students, not just in terms of socioeconomic, but single parents, people being brave enough to start a new career while looking after a family etc, and as I come from what people here would call a lower socioeconomic background, multiple divorced parents, leaving my parenting home at 11 and then starting university at 38. I started to develop the scholarship and how or what it would look like, unaware at the time, a great friend of mine and fellow graduate at Flinders had the same idea with the same purpose, for very similar reasons. We got together with the First year Coordinator at Flinders Paramedicine degree and she was totally in for the hard yards also.

We decided to start what is now called “The Stafford Wulff Opportunity Scholarship” (I did not name it). This was aimed at First Year students who needed financial assistance when starting the degree to help cover start up fees, such as Uniform, Books, Medical Testing, Vaccines, Boots, Medical Tools and Parking if needed. We encouraged student to apply and explain their situation and a student would be picked on specific criteria. Last year was the first award and it was awarded to two students. Since then, we have raised enough money to change that up, this year it will be awarded to four students and be extended to have a slush fund for those students who need help through the year, this includes all year groups, as we recognise that situations come up through the year and it is easier to recognise these things once the students are at the university.

Q. Wow mate that is amazing, what was the motivation or inspiration behind it initially?

A. My own (and Gabes) lived experience, well that, and being aware of other people's hardships in juggling study with home life commitments and financial obligations. My partner Kirsty was diagnosed with breast cancer in the October before I started the degree and she was unable to work much during my first year of uni. I attended many hospital appointments around lectures and had to pick up extra work to help us cover the bills. These experiences made me aware of how these costs create a barrier for some people, including those from less privileged backgrounds; those who may be the first in their family to go to university; those who have experienced personal hardships; those with caring obligations to children or loved ones; and many other groups. This cost can result in people dropping out or not even starting the degree. But the reality is that paramedics and emergency services need to serve the entire community - and these very people may make excellent, caring and compassionate ambos, who are able to draw upon their own experiences to better relate to their patients. A diverse ambulance workforce benefits the entire community and the service. The intention is that by assisting these students financially from the outset, they can focus more of their energy on their studies, rather than the financial stress.

Ultimately the hope is that this goes some way to creating equity and helps students from diverse backgrounds get their foot in the door, and through hard work, join the ranks and further enrich our wonderful and caring emergency service family.

Q. Has anyone benefited from this yet?

A. Yes, Flinders publish this information each year and I commend the recipients.

Q. You don’t seem to sit still, what's next on the cards?

A. So I have been told. I don’t sit down and I often fidget a lot. Last year it was brought to my attention that South Australia does not have a charitable foundation for Paramedics like in Qld. So I am looking into starting one, no idea how, but I believe that we need one……any takers to help set this up?

Q. A foundation? It seems like you want to leave a lasting legacy of positive impact, what would you hope the foundation can achieve?

A. I would love the Foundation to be able to support those that work on road in the Ambulance Service in South Australia when they need it most. Time off work, injury rehab, psychological help (I know, we are not supposed to talk about that, hence we need it).

Q.I understand that in a previous life, you were an expedition leader taking teams overseas into remote environments, what is the most memorable place you went?

A. Oh damn, that is so hard, I have been lucky enough to have been so many amazing places. But it would be a tie between Namibia waking up eyeball to eyeball with an elephant, in the Ugab riverbed whilst working in Elephant Conservation or Nepal, just because it is Nepal and everything is amazing there, most memorable is always the people.

Q. Paramedics by nature need to be resilient people but you seem to be next level, how do you develop or maintain resilience?

A. This is a tough one, as I mostly just think, oh isn’t everyone else like that. I get told that I do it differently, especially since my diagnosis. It is multifactorial, definitely some nature vs nurture, being from broken home, which comes with a few beers of its own stories, but learning then to fend for yourself. Having grandparents who taught me to chase what I wanted but to always be aware of the cost and letting me make mistakes and let me deal with the consequences, wasn’t a fan at the time, but as I have learnt to reflect I am very grateful. My younger brother, he definitely taught me what is meant to just get on with life while being in extreme pain, proving the odds wrong all with a smile on his face and a heart big enough to always help others.

Now with work, I see everyday people wearing “the other shoe” dealing with things that I sit and go wow, I need to do better. Not long after I was diagnosed I went to a woman at a GP clinic, who had a 4yo daughter, going through a divorce (the ex-husband to be was there) who had just been told she had multiple brain lesions, she was basically paralysed down one side. Yet she carried the weight of it all while protecting her daughter. Now that is resilience, I have much to be grateful for.

There is also my experiences in Nepal, for those that know me, I am not a religious person, some would say I am not even spiritual. However, I do very much relate and take on many practices/beliefs of Tibetan Buddhism one of which is that belief that there are certain truths in life, we are all going to face all off them. We need to face each one, not run away, pretend it didn’t or won’t happen when we face it we need to acknowledge it, if we are sad don’t deny it, be sad, mourn as much or as little as you need, wallow in that feeling then acknowledge it has happened and you have lived in it and then move forward because life continues, it is to short with so many things to enjoy/see/love each and every day. So that philosophy also keeps me remembering to move forward.

Q. Ok for a bit of fun, what is the weirdest case to date that you were sent to whilst working as a paramedic?

Hahaha, easy. Candle up the bum to help with constipation. I told them to take Movicol.

Q. Tell me, if you could have dinner with two people (dead or alive), who would they be?

A. OH, I never like these questions. I always worry about meeting my hero’s and them being an ass. Fiction would be Peter Parker and Dr Who. Non-Fiction would be my Dad, who died in an accident many years ago as we were rebuilding our relationship and my Grandpa, who is also now not with us. But I woud love to be able to say thanks for so many reasons.

Q. Milk or OJ?

A. Easy, Milk.

Q. Summer or Winter?

A. Summer until my chemo induced menopause, these days winter feels so much better.

Q. Any words of wisdom or parting piece advice?

A. When an opportunity comes along always grab it with both hands, give it your all because if you don’t like it, you can let go and walk back to where you were. If you never grab on you will never catch up to it.

Cheers mate.

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