Paramedic vehicles

A Simple Act of Kindness

It’s a simple photograph of a man, in the back of an ambulance, enjoying a caramel sundae. But the story behind it says so much.

When Ron McCartney was being taken to palliative care on the Gold Coast, his wife Sharon mentioned to ambulance officers that he hadn’t been able to eat for a couple of days.

When the Queensland officers heard Ron’s favourite meal was a caramel sundae, they took a detour to the closest McDonalds.

It was a small act to them. This is what they do; care for people. But for Ron, on his way to a certain and close death, and his wife Sharon, it meant the world.

The fact that it happened shouldn’t surprise any of us. In November last year, a similar photograph surfaced. This time the Hervey Bay patient was taken to the beach, to take in the calm waters one last time, on the way to palliative care.

An ambulance spokesman told Fairfax Media on Wednesday that it happened often; it just wasn’t always made public.

And on the surface, it is no big deal. A small detour during a busy day. But the fact that Ron’s case has gone viral and that so many people are extending their thanks to the QAS shows how much we rate kindness and empathy and care. And perhaps how much it is missing from our everyday transactions.

There’s a chance for that to change, and it comes via our school curriculum.

New South Wales Education Minister Rob Stokes has just announced that state’s most comprehensive review since 1989, in a bid to equip students to contribute fully to a 21st century community.

This is just what we need here in Queensland, Minister Grace Grace.

The NSW review has two aims, under its terms of reference. The first is for an education that engages students in learning, rewards their efforts and promotes high standards.

But it is the second prong that goes to my argument. It also aims to prepare students to be lifelong learners and “flourishing and contributing citizens in a world in which rapid technological advances are contributing to unprecedented economic and social change in unpredictable ways’’.

Yes, NSW Education director-general Mark Scott and Minister Stokes could probably have made it a bit simpler. But the point is this: A curriculum needs to be agile, and meet the demands of our time; a time in which our workforces are being upended by digital technologies and where artificial intelligence offers so much.

Businessman Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, one of the largest tech companies in the world, says we are now teaching our students 200-year-old knowledge that will never make us smarter than the artificial intelligence we’re adopting.

Instead, we need the skills to allow us to exploit and lead the digital revolution; skills like the ability to think independently, strong values, team work, good judgement, leadership, along with skills that make us think differently like music and painting.

Jack Ma is not alone. Every future of work and innovation report I can find in Australia, the UK and the US in recent times recommends that we refocus our education system to teach and test for those skills that add value to the technology we’re creating.

The hi-tech machines in the back of a Queensland Ambulance will only get better, and already can ensure a pain-free trip to palliative care in most cases.

But it’s other skills that make all the difference. The leadership to ask a dying man whether he’d like an ice-cream, the good judgement that means a decision is made to take a detour on the way to hospital, and the kindness and empathy to understand a man’s final journey.

Our ambulance workers need our thanks. And those entrusted with modernising and refocusing our education policy need to take a trip with them.

Photograph of Madonna King

Madonna King is a leading journalist and commentator. An award-winning presenter of 612 ABC Brisbane, she has authored 12 books and now works across radio, television and online.

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