Winding journey brings sun-seeking paramedic to Tairāwhiti

Thomas Grantham laughs when he says barbers were the first surgeons, but he’s not joking . . . until the 19th century “barber-surgeons” did everything from pulling teeth to setting broken bones.

Thomas Grantham laughs when he says barbers were the first surgeons, but he’s not joking . . . until the 19th century “barber-surgeons” did everything from pulling teeth to setting broken bones.

“It must have been meant to be!” says the critical care flight paramedic, who in mid-2023 joined the Trust Tairāwhiti Eastland Rescue Helicopter service.

“I was a barber for a time in the 1990s after a nine-year career as a telecommunications engineer, so perhaps my career path was more planned than I thought.”

Thomas was still living in his hometown of Coventry – in the West Midlands of England – when his career path took another turn, inspired by a scene in iconic television medical drama ER.

“There was a scene where`z  a paramedic was rushing a patient into the emergency room and thought ‘that looks interesting’,” he says.

“So I responded to a West Midlands Ambulance Service ad looking for trainee paramedics, and the next minute was roaring down the motorway with a baby in an incubator.”

That was at the turn of the new century and Thomas further turned those fictional beginnings into a reality by doubling down on his training, gaining qualifications from Paramedical Emergency Care and a BSc (Honours) degree in Autonomous Emergency Practice, to Aviation Rescue certification and Industrial Paramedicine.

He then took those skills around the world, working in medical rescue both in the air and on land from various locations in England to Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, to his most recent role in Western Australia.

“I always seem to be following the sun and was assured that Gisborne was the second-warmest place in New Zealand,” Thomas says dryly, after he’d experienced the region’s wettest autumn on record.

“But obviously I wouldn’t have gone anywhere without the support of my wife Takayo and step-daughter Itsuka, so it’s fantastic they were keen for the move.”

Thomas officially joined the Tairāwhiti service in April, coming via the Search and Rescue Services company that manages operations on behalf of its five trust owners, including the Eastland Helicopter Rescue Trust.

He first spent a week at SRSL’s Taupo base to undergo his New Zealand medical induction, followed by another week of brushing up his aviation skills for use in the BK-117 helicopter.

“Apart from being faster and noisier, being a helicopter paramedic means you deal with a challenging range of cases that enables you to really draw on your skill base, and that’s what I find engaging.”

The keen cyclist was also keen to learn more about the culture of his new home.

“That’s always interesting, wherever you go. In Saudi Arabia, for example, there is a strong Islamic culture but also an environment where few people wear seatbelts, so there were lots of traumatic injuries hardly ever seen in more regulated countries.

“Then in Australia I did a lot of medevacs for the oil and gas industry – getting dumped in the water far more often than I liked! – but also got to work in smaller indigenous communities that were really welcoming to an English boy like me.”

The move to Gisborne, he says, is a chance to learn even more.

“I’m lucky to be able to do this work that excites me, while at the same time seeing and experiencing a new part of the world.

“And, of course, you want to help people, and at the end of the day that’s what keeps us all in it.”