Home | Practical Living | 96-year-old first-time author documents his ambulance career in new book
Bob McDermant at the launch of his book "The Ambo". Photo: Supplied

96-year-old first-time author documents his ambulance career in new book

The well-worn phrase “it’s never too late” has never been so meaningful as for Bob McDermant.

Also affectionately known as ‘Ambo Bob’, at the grand age of 96 Australia’s oldest author has launched his first book The Ambo, a history of his 39-year career in the Queensland Ambulance Service.

“I think it’s a relief because it shows that if you really want to do something, even if it takes you your whole life, if you accomplish it in the end, that’s the big thing,” says Bob. 

“We’ve got an Ambulance Service that is probably the best in the world. And I’ve made so many, many friends. It’s absolutely amazing and wonderful, and it’s been worth every bit of effort that has been put into it.”

He admits he felt overwhelming relief more than anything else, after finally see the book in his hands.

“We’d put in so many hours over so many months. I was always worried that I wouldn’t get the story finished, wouldn’t see it compiled, edited and sent to the publisher, and never hold a finished book in my hands – a real concern as you approach 97!

“Over recent years I had almost given up hope of starting it, let alone finishing the project,” Bob laughs.

When Bob McDermant joined the Queensland Ambulance Transport Brigade in 1947, he expected to undergo training for his role as an ‘ambo’. But to his dismay there was none, and furthermore he found that the equipment was antiquated, with the procedures based on a manual that hadn’t been updated for 50 years.

So Bob and fellow ambulance officer Arthur Deobertiz set out to make some changes, constantly coming up against apathy, resistance and fear of change.

He says that when he came back from the army (a part of the book which is eloquently detailed), the ambulance service had been running for about 50-odd years and they had not made any changes or updates to their syllabus. 

“They had been taught to put a bandage and pad on a wound or spread a fracture and drive them (patients) to hospital, but that was it.” 

Adding to this, there was no training for the ‘ambos’. 

After 10 years of working to gain permission to change the syllabus and introduce training, Bob and Arthur started at the bottom, gradually changing the face of the service. Bob ultimately became the QAS training officer. 

“With all the work we put into it, I had to believe it was going somewhere,” Bob says. “We now have the best ambulance service in the world.” 

Bob’s story follows his journey with Deoberitz as they set out to make changes to the service by introducing a training program bringing treatment in line with modern medicine and helping to lay the foundations for the progressive and highly-skilled paramedic service we see today.

Due to sheer persistence, determination and an extraordinary visionary outlook, the pair saw great success.

“To me, the service has now gone from nothing to the best,” says Bob.

“The changes since I finished my time at the Ambulance Training School 35 years ago have been huge. In the first 10 years after I left the training school there was a big shake up in the administrative structures which meant a dramatic increase in funding for both the ambulance service and the training, and that led to significant progress in both areas which has continued to the present.  

“There have been amazing advances in technology – the vehicles, the high-tech stretchers, the monitoring equipment. A current ambulance is like a hospital emergency department cubicle, but with less space to move!”

Bob was eventually awarded the QAS Distinguished Service Medal in September 2010 which he says was extremely gratifying. But it had not been without personal cost and struggle over many years.

Thirty years earlier Bob had left his final position in the service under considerable angst.

“My departure from the Ambulance Training School is a story I told in the book, but basically we had a very short-sighted administration at that time, and they were under pressure to get more ambulance officers through the training school courses because it was so successful.    

“However the State Committee (our administration) made the demand of me that the training courses would now run back to back i.e. one course was to finish on a Friday and the new course was to start on the Monday! And it was made very clear to me that there would be no extra staff and no extra funding. This was an impossible situation and I tendered my resignation that day. It was certainly not the way I wanted to leave, after everything I had put into the job, but there really was no other choice for me.    

“A few years after my resignation, when the administration had been totally changed, I was approached and asked if I would return to the Ambulance Training School. I was honoured to be asked but returning was not for me. Although it took 30 years before I was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, that award did provide some closure for me and some belated recognition for what I had done.”

With no prior history of the QAS captured by anyone before him, Bob took just a little over 12 months to have The Ambo ready for publication. He gives a lot of credit to the staff and residents at Seasons Caloundra where he has been living during the writing and promotion of The Ambo.

“The staff at Seasons Caloundra have been totally behind my efforts to write this book and for months have been asking when they can read it,” Bob says.

“My family has been wonderfully supportive, helping with early book outlines, proofreading, printing large font versions and generally keeping me going but never pushing me – I appreciate that.”

Bob’s ghost writer Robin Storey who leads biography writing classes at Seasons Caloundra was also vital to the project, he says. “It started with just trying out one chapter, but if I hadn’t found Robin there wouldn’t be a book in the first place.”

And Bob’s only child Greg McDermant was also a massive help in the collection of information and the recording of the stories, typing them up and reading them back to his father. “Greg sorted out the mistakes and we gradually did it chapter by chapter.”

He encourages other seniors to document their lives and to enlist professional help if they can. He already encouraged a former banker who lives near him to write his memoir.

QAS Commissioner Russell Bowles said Bob’s book meant a lot to the ambulance service.

“Once you lose history you can never get it back, so to capture this is so great. A lot of people think that the ambulance service was always like it is today, but in the book you see the struggles that Bob went through to put the foundations in place in order to have the great ambulance service that we see today.”

The Ambo is available through Amazon, Booktopia, Angus and Robertson, Fishpond, and Barnes and Noble. 

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