FIRST aid training should be compulsory for learner drivers in a bid to save lives, the 2022 Senior Australian of the Year says.
Canberra’s Valmai Dempsey believes that first aid administered at the scene of an accident is proven to prevent death in the vital minutes before an ambulance arrives.
The long-serving St John Ambulance ACT volunteer is pushing for first-aid training to be made a prerequisite for obtaining a driver’s licence, as it is in 11 other countries.
“It’s a no brainer,” says Dempsey.
“We know that first aid saves lives. Let’s get these kids trained so that if they pull up to a traffic accident they have the skills, knowledge, and competency to render first aid.”
The 71-year-old, whose family was affected by a tragic car accident more than 30 years ago, recalls the moment when her 17-year-old daughter Michelle left home to drive her friends up Black Mountain.
“The car she was driving got smashed at a traffic light, rolled over and then crashed into a telegraph pole,” Dempsey says.
“Michelle survived, but was trapped and couldn’t help the passenger who was lying in her arms. Lots of other people who came to the accident wanted to help, but they didn’t know what to do.
“Tragically, a gorgeous, young soul was lost that day.”
Since then, the great grandmother has made it her personal mission to teach first aid to as many people as possible.
“So that others won’t be standing on the side of the road not knowing what to do,” said Dempsey.
“We don’t want other families to have to go through what we did.”
Known affectionately as “Aunty Val”, Dempsey has been volunteering with St John Ambulance in Canberra for more than 40 years.
“Every time you hold your hand out to someone and be kind it can make a world of difference,” Dempsey says.
Still on “cloud nine” after receiving her Australia Day award, Dempsey was recognised for her work responding to the Black Summer bushfires – in which she managed a team of 40 volunteers supporting fire-affected communities – and for her work with the covid pandemic.
“The year the fires were around, I clocked up about 600 volunteer hours,” says Dempsey.
During her four-decade association with the organisation, Dempsey has helped create some of St John Ambulance’s most crucial initiatives.
Thirty years ago, after a bad batch of heroin circulated through Canberra, Dempsey started Project Survival, teaching those with addictions to help others who overdose.
“We lost nine lives due to that very bad batch of drugs,” said Dempsey.
“So I started Project Survival, which still runs today, and teaches basic first aid.”
The retired nurse says relatively simple interventions – getting a clear airway, putting an injured person in the recovery position, and delivering CPR if it was needed – can make “all the difference” in a crisis situation.
“It’s all about looking after your mate, because if you don’t they stand a good chance of passing away,” she says.
Night Crew, a service that’s helped thousands of late-night revellers affected by drugs and alcohol, is another St John Ambulance program that Dempsey’s passionate about.
Since its inception five years ago, Night Crew – which operates from Civic – has helped thousands of partygoers get home safely after a night out, prevented hundreds of sexual assaults, ambulance trips and police call outs.
While Dempsey – who left school at 15 – has devoted many years to her role as a St John Ambulance volunteer, she has also held down an important job as an oncology nurse.
Having retired from nursing some years ago, Dempsey has worked as a contact tracer during the recent covid outbreak, and also cares for her husband Lindsay, who has cancer.
In 2000 she was diagnosed with a degenerative muscle disease called “myositis”, a painful disease that weakens muscles.
“At one stage, I didn’t think I was going to make it, I couldn’t lift my head off the pillow or brush my teeth,” said Dempsey.
“It affects your grip, your ability to stand, and in my case it’s eating away at my lungs.”
Although Dempsey is confronted with her own health challenges, she refuses to let them prevent her from contributing to her community.
“You only get one chance at life,” Dempsey said.
“If this disease is trying its darnedest to get the better of me then I won’t let it.”
Anyone wanting to become a St John Ambulance ACT volunteer should visit www.stjohnact.com.au
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