When scaffolding and concrete collapsed on a construction site in North Ryde in Sydney at the beginning of April, chaos ensued.
Eight ambulances, police and fire rescue crews and a Care Flight helicopter arrived on the scene in moments, where they discovered two trapped workers. One worker was taken to hospital. The other, 18-year-old formwork apprentice Christopher Cassaniti, died at the scene.
NSW Ambulance Acting Inspector Steven Vaughan told ABC News that it was an “absolutely chaotic and emotionally-charged scene.”
Paul McFarlane, a NSW Ambulance chaplain, was also dispatched to the accident scene along with another chaplain colleague.
“We were there to help the work mates of the young man who was killed,” McFarlane told Eternity. But he soon discovered that the mother of Christopher Cassaniti had been working at the construction site’s canteen and was on the scene of the accident within minutes.
“It was very distressing for those who were there,” McFarlane said.
“Over the next few hours we were able to assist [the mother] and her family, and workers on the scene who had been part of rescue attempts to get the men out from under the scaffolding.
“I believe it is a privilege to bring God’s love, in a very tangible form, to people at the heart of a really tragic event.”
Paul McFarlane is the Senior Chaplain for NSW Ambulance, and coordinates a team of 43 chaplains across the state. He is currently looking to hire 15 more volunteer chaplains to cover more territory, particularly regional areas and southern NSW.
“Chaplaincy is really well received and well regarded by paramedics and staff,” says McFarlane. “We’ve proven to be trustworthy, as people who show love and respect. So chaplains in the NSW Ambulance are very well utilised.”
“This is very much a ministry of being with people on what can be the worst day of their life.” – Paul McFarlane
Just this weekend past, McFarlane says chaplains were dispatched to the scene of some “horrific car accidents” in the north of the state.
“There were passersby who had stopped to try and help, and they’d witnessed some confronting things. That’s where our chaplains have a unique job: we’re not just there to offer support to the paramedics, but to community members also on the scene – bystanders or family members – who in the moment are struggling.
“We’re there to support them, and let the paramedics do their job of treating those who need immediate medical help.”
McFarlane was a volunteer chaplain with NSW Ambulance for 10 years while also working as a rural Anglican minister before he became the Senior Chaplain, a position he has held for 8 years. He began his career as a Registered Nurse and has also completed a Masters studying loss and grief. He says chaplaincy to frontline services is a “tough gig” but comes with joy, too.
“There’s great joy in coming onto a scene that is tragic and chaotic, but knowing that God’s got you there for a reason, and then finding that reason in a conversation or the help you give someone as God’s heart and hands in that situation. It’s very rewarding.”
“I think it’s rare that a chaplain would go home and not feel blessed that they were there and able to help.”
McFarlane says the new recruitment drive for 15 extra volunteer chaplains adds a third to their team, and is testament to the value frontline services place on chaplaincy.
The chaplain role for NSW Ambulance is to provide pastoral care, spiritual guidance and support to paramedics, staff, volunteers and their families as well as patients and bystanders in the event of a traumatic or stressful incident.
“For those bystanders or patients, our support is short-term crisis support, but it’s appreciated by people when they don’t know where to turn.”
McFarlane believes paramedics and NSW Ambulance staff see the work of chaplains in the field, particularly how they keep calm in emotional and stressful situations, and that helps them build trust. This can encourage paramedics themselves to be more likely to talk to them about personal issues, whether on the job or in their own lives.
NSW Ambulance is looking for “people of faith” to apply for the chaplaincy positions in its multi-faith and multi-denominational chaplaincy team. McFarlane told Eternity that while he has previously looked to hire only clergy or pastors, he is expanding his search to include everyday “people of faith” with pastoral care experience and who can demonstrate an ability to work in stressful, critical or traumatic incidents.
“This is very much a ministry of being with people on what can be the worst day of their life. It’s not for everybody.”