On 26 February 1973, a keen young man from Crookwell walked into Central District Ambulance Station on George Street at The Rocks to begin his  training.

Fifty years later, after a few different tenancies, the old Ambulance headquarters has been heritage-listed and a new headquarters is about to open at  Sydney Olympic Park. The man who walked through those doors, Ray Willis, is still working as a paramedic.

“I loved the work,” Ray told Sirens, when asked about his longevity in the job. “I hadn’t even had a fulltime job before, but I liked how the job was different every day.”

After completing his training, Ray worked at Narrabeen Station from 1973 until June 1977.

“We used to attend road accidents on the Wakehurst Parkway, and on Pittwater and Barrenjoey Roads,” Ray recalled. “In those days we didn’t have much rescue equipment – a first-aid box, a splint, a silver oxygen box and a Hudson mask. Things were very basic.”

From Narrabeen, Ray followed his heart to Queanbeyan, where he remains to this day.

“When I transferred to Queanbeyan they asked me to spend the first 6 months in Bombala. It was so cold that winter!” Ray said.

Ray worked a single responder car out of Queanbeyan District Hospital. The road accident responses here were on the Federal Highway, the Monaro Highway and the Kings Highway, with trauma cases taken to the old Canberra Hospital.

“The car was an old International with four stretchers. I think there’s one in the Ambulance Museum at Temora now,” Ray said.

A photo from 1980 of Queanbeyan Paramedic Ray Willis
Paramedic Ray Willis in the 1980s

Despite his initial aversion to the cold and not being a skier himself, Ray worked several snow seasons at Jindabyne, Perisher and Thredbo.

After some prompting, Ray mentioned a few big jobs. “I was there for the duration at the Thredbo Landslide in 1997, until we recovered Stuart Diver. There were some big bushfires too, particularly the recent ones.”

“A tough gig,” is the understated way Ray described the pandemic.

One of the paramedics Ray mentored, Intensive Care Paramedic Wayne Wallace, is more forthcoming about Ray.

“He was a role model. Ray taught me how to master the basics, the ABC of being a paramedic, how to identify sick patients.” Wayne said. “He’s the sort of person who just gets out there and does the job. His dedication is outstanding – and he still keeps up with the 20 to 30-year-olds at the station.”

Stepson Craig Short, an intensive care paramedic who served as Queanbeyan Station Officer, is clearly a source of great pride for Ray. Craig told Sirens that Ray played a major part in his motivation to join NSW Ambulance.

“Thanks to Ray I was in and around ambulances from age 13. Ray worked at the races with Superintendent Jack Bardsley, and at the local speedway  with Ross Hocking, and the local rodeo with Terry Fahey. I would go along and watch him at work. As always Ray had the ambulance at home on call that I would sit in and imagine what it was like to be a real ambo. I joined up myself in 1988 as a 19-year-old thinking I knew a lot about it. Think again."

“Ray and other real ambos taught me how to think deeply about and care for patients, how to do the job and how to work on my own, which we all did a lot of back then. With encouragement from Don Hart and Stephen Gough, Ray completed ALS (Advanced Life Support) course 14 and Ray was the proudest bloke I’ve known. For a fellow that went off as a teenager to drive trains instead of going to school, it was a major achievement, and he even went on to help many other ambos in the old South East District with drug dose calculations and pharmacology for their ALS courses."

Craig said that with Ray’s support he eventually completed the ALS himself - before returning to Sydney a few years later to become an Intensive Care Paramedic.

“I returned to Queanbeyan eventually again to work with Ray. I even became the station officer there and that was a very strange feeling indeed after being that kid in the ambulance beside him all those years earlier.

Craig said it was Ray’s practical advice that resonated the most when he went on to work at the Ambulance Education Centre in Rozelle.

“Over our careers we’ve pulled off some amazing saves and there are people alive today with families that otherwise wouldn’t be, were it not for ‘What Ray did that day’. The results of that work are there forever in the community and never forgotten, and I and many others are so thankful for that grounding he provided along the way.”

Friends and colleagues celebrated Ray’s long innings with a party at the Queanbeyan Kangaroos Club on 11 March 2023. Ray reckons it’ll soon be time to call it a day.

“I love being at the station. Everyone there treats me with such great respect. But I’ve got two bunged up shoulders and a bunged up knee.”

Congratulations Ray and thanks for the care you’ve provided for your patients and your colleagues over the last 50 years.