15 Sep 21 - Resident stories

Here to help

For Donald Galbraith, helping others is simply second nature. He’s seen it all during his more than five decades with St John New Zealand, and was recently awarded a medal for his service to his community.

When you’re from a small community, you have to roll up your sleeves and pitch in. That’s the message Donald had from a young age, growing up in Temuka, near Timaru.

“I was in Temuka for over 80 years of my life. The maternity ward where I was born was on the main street, I lived on the main street and worked on the main street. I wanted to be of use to the town.”

The family owned the local funeral director’s business, and the then 20-year-old Donald was working full-time with his dad when a meeting was held about starting Temuka’s first St John brigade. When the call came for ambulance volunteers, Donald was quick to put his hand up.

After a mammoth fundraising effort involving the whole township, Temuka finally had its own ambulance. With a first-aid certificate under his belt, Donald soon found himself as an ambulance driver, heading off to emergency call-outs with a nurse.

“We gave a 24/7 service. There were four of us who each went on duty at 8am Monday and did 24/7 duty until the following Monday. So every four weeks, each of us was on call for one week. The calls that came in went to the driver's home or work phone, as there were no cellphones back then. Luckily trip numbers in those days were nothing like today's use of the ambulance service.”

It was exhausting work, and as there was only limited funding, all the staff were volunteers. For Donald, working in the funeral business as well as for St John meant he was always at extreme ends of the human experience – caring for the deceased at one job, and working to keep people alive at the other.

The strangeness of the situation isn’t lost on Donald, who says his guiding mantra of helping people in need, and focusing on the job at hand, was what kept him going when things were stressful.

“At St John we had to sit a first-aid certificate every year to stay proficient, but we were also examined by a doctor ourselves to make sure we were all right too. Because it’s a huge responsibility.”

After going out on ambulance call-outs for more than 20 years, Donald moved to the administrative side of the charity and worked for another two decades as the secretary for St John Temuka. All up, he served St John for 57 years.

All the hard work was officially recognised at an award ceremony in Christchurch at the end of last year, where Donald received a gold Ultra Long Service Medal of the Order of St John for 50 years of continuous service, complete with a gold bar to represent an additional five years of service.

Donald says receiving the medal was a surprise and an honour, particularly because this is the first year that this medal has been presented. “Little did I think all through the years that there would be recognition at the end."

These days, Donald and his wife Marion have shifted away from their beloved Temuka. They now live at Summerset on Cavendish in Christchurch to be closer to their three daughters and their grandchildren. The kindly Cantabrian is enjoying some well-earned relaxation, but he’s still the type to lend a hand whenever it’s needed.

“I’ve always wanted to help people. Even if it’s a pile of dishes in the sink, I know there’s a tea towel there to dry them. It’s just the way I was brought up.”

This is an article from the Spring 2021 edition of Summerset Scene magazine

Click here to read the full issue