Never too late to start a life story

One of the most satisfying aspects of being a life story writer is helping someone to achieve something they never thought possible. Many people who would love to see their life story in print never fulfil their wish. They might believe they have left it too late to start writing a life story.

Maybe they started writing it themselves and found it too difficult, or perhaps they couldn’t find anyone to do it for them. Maybe they ran out of time or energy – there are as many reasons as there are people.

When I met 96-year-old Bob McDermant, he’d harboured a burning desire to write his life story for over 20 years. He initially wanted to join a life story writing group I was running at his aged care facility. It soon became apparent, due to his arthritic hands and impaired sight and hearing, that he needed someone to write it for him.

Bob was ecstatic when I agreed to do it and once he told me some of his history, I knew we could create a story that would captivate the general public as well as his family. Bob served in Papua New Guinea in World War 11 in the 7th Field Ambulance, and after he returned to Brisbane he joined the civil ambulance. To his dismay there was no training, and the equipment and procedures were antiquated. So he and a fellow officer set out to make some changes, constantly coming up against apathy, resistance and fear of change.

Eventually they succeeded in introducing a training program as well as many reforms, laying the foundations for the sophisticated Queensland paramedic service of today. It’s an inspiring story of struggle, persistence and determination over Bob’s 39-year career with Queensland Ambulance.

Finding a way when eyesight fails

Setting up the writing process was an exercise itself in creativity. Due to Bob’s poor vision and his minimal computer experience, emailing him the manuscript for him to read and approve was not feasible. Bob had a magnifying machine, with which he could read printed pages if the writing was very large, but to read an entire manuscript all at once in that way would have been a slow and painful process.

We devised a system of writing the book in stages. I would write a couple of chapters at a time, then read them out loud to Bob, during which he would correct any factual errors. I then emailed the corrected chapters to Bob’s son Greg, who would print them out in extra large font and give them to Bob to read at his leisure on his magnifying machine. That way he could pick up any errors he’d missed on the initial reading.

Finally, after many months of talking and laughter, some tears (Bob’s, not mine), stories dredged up from the bottom of his mind that he’d forgotten, a few extra anecdotes added in at the last minute and Bob’s final approval, The Ambo – from Field Ambulance to Civil Ambulance and More
went to the publishers for printing.

Bob – Australia’s oldest debut author

The look on Bob’s face when he finally held his book in his hand, with his name on the cover as the author as per our agreement, was priceless. But rather than the end, this was just the beginning. After Bob’s book launch, attended by a contingent of Queensland Ambulance officials, word soon got around about his book – the word being that at 96, Bob was the oldest debut author in Australia.

If it wasn’t success enough to have the book for sale all over the world and people he had never met buying it, Bob was now caught up in a dizzying round of media interviews – ABC radio, Channel 9 news, 7.30 and numerous newspapers and magazines – and loving every minute of it. The international media also showed interest, and as Bob was born in Scotland, they are keen to claim him.

I even got to share in some of the glory, with the crew from 7.30 swooping into my house armed with lights and cameras to interview me as part of the segment. You never know what adventures await you when you start writing someone’s life story!

Bob’s contribution to Queensland Ambulance was not given much recognition at the time, though he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal 25 years after he retired. Now he has told his story to the world and is receiving the acclamation he deserves.

Not only was publishing his life story a dream come true for Bob, it was bigger and better than he could ever have imagined. His inscription in the front of the book sums it up – It’s never too late.

Robin Storey