How would you feel to be labelled a role model? Would you revel in the responsibility? Or would its weight of worth feel heavy upon your shoulders?
For Zaidia Hussain, it’s something she’s been learning to live with. As a young British Asian woman working as a paramedic for the London Ambulance Service, she’s found herself at a cultural frontier. From family expectation and occasional public prejudice to championing diversity among her peers, her career, just five years in the making, has already demanded more courage and determination than many require in a lifetime.
“Coming from an Asian background, you know that there are two career roles that you’ll be expected to choose from,” says Zaidia, a graduate of the University’s BSc (Hons) Paramedic Practitioner (Community Emergency Health) degree. “You either try to become a doctor/dentist, or a lawyer/solicitor. But growing up I knew that I wanted to do neither.”
Born and bred in Bristol, the youngest of ten children, Zaidia was sadly all too familiar with the work of healthcare professionals as a consequence of her mother’s battle with cancer. And what struck her most profoundly were the paramedics who visited their home.
“They saw my mum at her very worst and they would always make it better somehow, whether through the treatment they provided or simply because of the people they were,” Zaidia says. “Years later, I realised that paramedicine as a career would suit me perfectly, and it’s a memory that lives with me today, especially when I am the paramedic dealing with patients and families in similar situations.”
Her father was initially unimpressed with her prospective career choice, believing paramedics to be little more than 'ambulance drivers'. But when he suffered a heart attack and experienced first-hand their skills and knowledge, he offered his blessing, and Zaidia enrolled at Plymouth on just the third cohort of the paramedic degree.
At that time, it was not uncommon for students to secure their foundation degree after two years and leave to secure a job in the Ambulance Service. Zaidia, however, encouraged by her placement mentor and her father, stayed on for the full three years to achieve her honours degree.
“My dad is a great believer in education,” Zaidia says. “He was lucky to be educated in his generation, and he wanted his children to be the best we could be. He would say to us that ‘your degree will stay with you forever, regardless of what you do’. And I loved university – the student life was fantastic, and having that independence really prepared me for life.”
Within weeks of finishing her last exam, Zaidia found that life rushing to meet her, as she secured a job with the London Ambulance Service at her first interview. From the relative security of her placements in Devon and Cornwall, she was suddenly on the frontline of the busiest ambulance service in the country, and the only one that issues stab vests as a matter of course.
“When you’re at university, you have a paramedic with you who is your safety net,” she says. “And then I came to London and it was like being thrown in at the deep end. I might have had three years’ training and passed all of my exams, but this was very different. I was now that safety net and that probably took me six months to get used to. You go home and think ‘I could go to anything tomorrow’ – and it’s true. You could deliver a baby in the morning, attend a stabbing in the afternoon, and finish with someone that has a broken fingernail!”
Based in Chiswick, Zaidia, works 12-hour shifts with her permanent medical technician partner, Max, shifts that regularly require them to leave their territory of west London to respond to emergencies in the north and south of the metropolitan area. At times, she says, the role has more to do with social care and assisting the elderly. But on the flip-side, there are the calls that have earned her a reputation as a ‘trauma magnet’, including more than her share of knife crime. Indeed, she was part of the emergency response team that helped to save the life of a man stabbed in the heart – only the second time in the country that someone has recovered from such a wound.
“Every paramedic or clinician deals with things differently,” she says, as we sit talking in the main ambulance centre at Fulham. “We will always debrief after a traumatic job, and there are lots of support services available to us. I try not to get too personal, if that makes sense. If we go to a bad job, that person I will never know, so I try not to connect the dots, because when you do, that’s when you become emotionally connected.”
There have been occasions, however, when it’s impossible not to be affected. Zaidia reveals she has been assaulted several times while on duty, and subject to racial abuse – the most recent of which has resulted in a criminal prosecution. Despite the Ambulance Service’s zero-tolerance policy on abuse of its staff, and the wealth of support they provide, for some it would be reason enough to seek an alternative career. For Zaidia, it has only spurred her on. She’s now become a mentor herself for students on placement and graduates who need orientation when they are first posted to the service. She is also developing her practitioner skills by working as a locum in a nearby urgent care centre, and is set to enrol on a masters degree in healthcare practice. And perhaps most revealing of all, she’s joined the diversity committee of the College of Paramedics.
“When I was at university, there were not many paramedic students with an Asian background,” she says. “But it was a very different situation on medical and dental degrees. Why is that? Is it the influence from our culture? As a student ambassador, I did a lot of paramedic talks to schools because I wanted to champion the idea of paramedicine as a career.
“In the last five years I have seen a big change. There are girls with headscarves in the service now, and I like to talk to them to get their perspective on how they’ve found the journey. I feel like we have broken some very difficult barriers, especially within the female part of the community.”
There are still moments when Zaidia’s father says she should get a ‘normal’ job in a hospital or office. And her wider family still struggle to comprehend why she would want to work night shifts in what can be a dangerous community. And when they do, she asks them how they’d feel if a British Asian girl came to treat them when they’d need it most.
“You will never change everyone’s mind, but I think you should always attempt to give them an opportunity to view it from a different perspective,” Zaidia says as our time draws to a close. “And as my career has progressed, maybe I do feel like I am not only a role model for other young paramedics, but also for members of my own community. Yes it can be difficult, but if our families do not understand that we can do those roles, then we will never change the diversity of the Ambulance Service.”
Being a paramedic practitioner is a highly rewarding and stimulating career, with many opportunities to specialise.
Following a curriculum that is informed by service users and carers, and focusing on quality patient management, you'll work in the unpredictable environment of pre-hospital healthcare and, as such, you will learn how to be dynamic with your decision-making, aptitude and application of skills.