A DEADLY train crash that claimed the lives of seven people in 2004 sparked an interest in trauma support that will see one Purton paramedic travel to Australia and New Zealand next year on a funded research fellowship.

Jo Mildenhall was one of the first emergency service workers at the scene of the Ufton Nervet crash. A high speed inter-city train had smashed into a motorist who had parked his car on the tracks outside the sleepy Berkshire village.

At the time, paramedic Jo had six years’ experience. Born in Swindon and educated at Dorcan Academy, she had made the jump from working in the Princess Margaret Hospital operating theatre to saving lives with the ambulance service.

“It was carnage,” said Jo, remembering the scene. Carriages had fallen off the tracks and hundreds of passengers trailed from the scene to a village pub, one of the few buildings nearby. “There were hundreds of people, all silent."

Jo set about treating the wounded and in the days afterwards supported rail engineers as they recovered the carriages.

But it was only in the weeks and months after the crash that Jo noticed the long term impact upon her colleagues.

“Our immediate go-to coping mechanism was to talk about it among ourselves,” she said. “I noticed people were quieter than normal – just not quite themselves.”

Nowadays, ambulance services have trauma risk management teams to help support paramedics, emergency care assistants and ambulance technicians who have been affected by traumatic incidents.

Then, there were occupational health teams. But few seem to have taken advantage of them.

And her experience of the Ufton Nervet crash knocked Jo onto a different path.

A full-time paramedic of 20 years, Jo already has two degrees under her belt and is currently researching for a doctorate at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Her research interest is her colleagues and how they deal with stress.

“The Ufton Nervet crash started to raise a lot of questions for me as to how incidents like that affect us as paramedics,” she said. “What are our reactions to them? Do we cope or do we suppress the impact?”

The culture within the ambulance service has changed since 2004 in terms of how bosses think about the impact of stress on emergency workers.

Now, the problem is pressure: “We’re so much busier than we used to be. You used to be able to go back to the ambulance station and have a chat with your colleagues. It’s now one job after another.”

The effect is exhausted 999 workers: “They’re heading towards burnout.” A literature review study by Australian researchers last year suggested that 11 per cent of paramedics could be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. An estimated 15 per cent were suffering anxiety.

As a paramedic officer responsible for a team of 20, Jo knows how important it is to manage stress.

In her two decade career she has attended everything from heart attacks to car crashes. One of her traumatic experiences, however, was being called to a car accident that claimed the life of a friend and colleague: “It had a significant impact, but my thinking at the time was that I just needed to support my team.”

Jo has been awarded a Churchill Trust fellowship to study how ambulance services around the world help emergency workers manage stress. She plans to spend six weeks in Australia and New Zealand, where major research institutes into trauma stress are based.

The result of her fellowship could be a new mental health strategy for ambulance trusts nationwide. Jo, who works for South Central Ambulance Service NHS Trust in the Newbury area, sits on the College of Paramedics’ mental health and wellbeing steering group.

Follow her progress on Twitter: @Jojo_research.