A paramedic who volunteered for eight months caring for people in one of the world’s most remote communities has called for action to erode stark global health inequalities after being awarded a British Empire Medal (BEM) for services to emergency medicine and disaster response.
Nich Woolf, who turned 68 on New Year’s Day and is originally from London, had planned to be in Vanuatu – more than 2,000 miles (3,200km) off Australia’s east coast – working with ambulance crews from February to April but was only able to return home in mid-October due to pandemic travel restrictions.
“Because all the Australians went home as their government said they had to, I was left on Santo island as the only qualified paramedic, along with three local students,” Woolf said. “I was essentially on call from end of March through to October when I left.”
The paramedic, who along with working for ambulance crews in the west of England and Wales has volunteered in Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Haiti, added of the award: “It was a complete surprise and a shock. I’m very proud of it. I’ve always thought that the best thing I could do with my life was to help other people.
“Give a man a fish and feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for life. So I’ve shared knowledge with people and in return they often share their knowledge with me, even when healthcare resources are not good.
“My volunteer work has kept me going in my life. That’s what I’m about, I believe in using any skills that I have to benefit other people.”
With Vanuatu’s largest island not having a working X-ray machine and limited other facilities, some patients Woolf reached had to be sent by air almost 200 miles to the country’s capital and main hub, Port Vila, while others with conditions and diseases more easily treatable in the west died, unable to receive the necessary care due to the poor infrastructure.
“These were things that are serious but would easily be dealt with in the UK,” said Woolf. “It was a difficult time. I was having to really stretch myself as a paramedic to deal with things. It’s lovely to be recognised in the new year honours but it brings up a lot of feelings about how much more work there is to do to sort out the health inequalities that exist in the world.
“It’s worth putting a lot of effort into helping people get the healthcare they deserve. People say they’ll spend money on hospitals but seem to spend it on weapons instead.”
In early April, the Pacific archipelago of approximately 80 islands was hit by a cyclone that brought winds of almost 200mph and destroyed whole villages.
“The place was wrecked and the southern half of the island was devastated,” he said. “A lot of villages in the rainforest had lost every single building, including dozens of kindergartens, which for some children could be their only ever schooling.”
To help raise money to build a new preschool on Espiritu Santo, the largest island, Woolf teamed up with other expats to present a funding proposal for about £7,000 to the UK, Australia and New Zealand high commissions.
“Its not fully sorted but we have had some good offers,” said Woolf, who is also a trustee of Somerset charity Festival Medical Services.