Jon Ferguson with his new love Bridget Birrell and son Callum in Saudi Arabia. The couple will wed in October, 2012.
Jon Ferguson with his new love Bridget Birrell and son Callum in Saudi Arabia. The couple will wed in October, 2012.

Paramedic captured by clash of cultures

MISSIONARIES, mercenaries, madmen and the Middle East.

Jon Ferguson wanted to be the missionary - a man who could help revolutionise antiquated safety practices, and save lives in Saudi Arabia.

But he was sucked into a maelstrom of cultural clashes, political unrest and systemic distrust bubbling below the gilt-edged veneer of immense oil-driven wealth.

He simply couldn't fight the descent into the mindset of a mercenary and, at times, very mad, man who wrestled daily with his conscience.

"The work was horrific because the Saudi culture is not one of safety," Jon, who was on a 12-month contract as an intensive care flight paramedic with the helicopter emergency medical system based at Riyadh, said.

"They don't think like we do.

"We've had time to evolve and introduce workplace health and safety. This hasn't happened in Saudi.

"It's a very interesting country in that it's a collision of western wealth and western technology and fundamentalism, Islamic law and beliefs and they clash, oh they clash.

"It's two very different cultures in the one place and very different for people who come from developed cultures."

Working under the banner of the Saudi Red Crescent, Jon was part of a 12-strong multi-national medical contingent.

Three months later, "half of them had disappeared, took their money and ran away".

"I became a mercenary about three months after everyone was leaving," Jon, a cancer survivor and father-of-six, said.

"It cost me a lot of money there. They withdrew the housing allowance and the children's schooling allowances when I arrived, which was the main reason I was there.

"Mercenary and mad go hand in hand.

"It's an extremely frustrating experience. Things do not happen when they say they will.

"It is a country of contrasts - it is not what is being done, it is what is seen to be done."

The one constant of Jon's job was death.

In Saudi Arabia, locals put their faith in Inshallah. The daily road toll averages 17 fatalities.

"People drive cars and don't wear seatbelts, because they don't believe seatbelts will save their lives," Jon said.

"Allah will save their lives. Inshallah. They get in a car and drive at 160kmh and it is all Inshallah - Allah's will - that I will die on that day.

"In Riyadh we would attend about seven a day… mostly road trauma, multi casualties from motor vehicle accidents, three to eight people at a time.

"There is a huge mortality rate but Saudi hasn't kept any figures since 2009, and even then it doesn't reflect the true mortality rate."

Jon was forced to take out personal indemnity insurance because his employer didn't provide it.

The Australian Embassy was one of the few places where you could congregate and let your hair down, be an Aussie, have a beer in a country where alcohol is forbidden, and share a laugh, blow off some steam.

Jon was at an American Embassy party when he 'rescued' Bridget Birrell, a Toowoomba-raised midwife from a Swedish stud, Thomas, who was "hitting on everything that walked".

"He was a bit full on and his friend Hendrik said there's a poor woman over there and I think she's Australian," Jon said with a laugh.

In March, Jon proposed when the couple holidayed in Copenhagen.

"We had so much in common it was just bizarre. We had basically followed each other all over the world."

Jon has returned to his job as officer-in-charge at the Gemfields QAS station, and Bridget is working as a midwife at the Emerald Hospital.

"Bridget has come from a busy maternity section delivering thousands of babies a month, but now she's working and living in an environment that gives her more scope for practice, whereas in Saudi it was more of a baby factory," he said.

"I really have to thank the Queensland Ambulance Service because without their support I wouldn't have been able to experience such an interesting place, and a special thanks to Warren Kellet the area director."

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