“How do you stay calm when you’re working with lives on the line?” was the overarching question debated on Tuesday’s episode ‘Nerves of Steel’ on SBS’ Insight.

Among those invited to contribute to the discussion was Queensland-based nurse and paramedic Helen Zahos, who saw this as an opportunity to connect with like-minded professionals sharing the same sense of duty towards people in need.

The panel’s composition is indicative of what this abstract commitment looks like when it translates to practice, featuring Danish cave diver Ivan Karadzic, member of the recent rescue mission of 12 boys trapped in a cave in Thailand, and Aldo Diana, a London firefighter who saved nine people from the burning Grenfell Tower last year.

Zahos’ commitment to helping the most vulnerable has been proven over the years, from volunteering at a medical clinic in Thessaloniki and in Lesvos amidst the refugee crisis, to serving in a number of hot spots internationally, including Iraq, where she helped set up a clinic in close proximity to ISIS territory, Nepal, where she tended to the survivors of the devastating 2015 earthquake, and the Philippines, supporting locals deal with the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan.

So how can one manage stress when working in places like war zones and disaster-affected areas?

“I think you stay calm because even though you’re in a situation where there’s a lot of chaos […] you’re focused on that one job you’re doing at the moment,” she tells Neos Kosmos.

“While you’re aware of what’s happening around you, you just stay focused on that one patient that’s in front of you and you just keep going.
“I think as well – and this is something we talked about in the show – that when you’ve got the skills and you’re trained, and remembering now I’m nearly 20 years into nursing and paramedic training and work and having gone to several disasters, you become quite used to working outside what your normal job would entail, in very unpredictable environments. You just become used to it…it becomes normal.”

Did she ever feel she was going to die?

“Yes, a couple of times, definitely during the Nepal earthquake, when the second big earthquake hit. I was scared, but you regain your courage and you keep going, because you have patients to look after; you’re very focused at the job at hand.”

During our interview, Zahos reveals that at that time she even sent a text message to her mum saying goodbye, thinking she might never see her again.

“When amidst a disaster caused by a natural force, you’ve got no control over [the situation]. At that moment, when the earthquake was happening, I was hanging onto the car, I was with a colleague and we were just screaming because it took us by surprise,” she adds, pointing out the lack of any escape route due to the mountain’s narrow road infrastructure and a landslide ahead.

One of the questions Insight‘s host Jenny Brockie asked Zahos was why she’s attracted to dangerous work.

“It’s a tough question to answer,” she says. “With the dangerous side of things I feel that, when someone needs me, I’ll be there to help, I don’t really look at the danger around me.”

She also talked about the feeling of isolation she experiences upon return from a humanitarian response. Despite having friends and family by her side, Zahos attributes this to not having her team members around, the only ones who can truly understand what she’s seen and been through as the same applies to them.

Considering that she also lost her father six years ago, Zahos admits it is not easy for her mother, to soothe her fears every time she chooses to volunteer in emergency response, especially in conflict environments.

But she says her family has had to come to terms with it and respect her decision to keep offering her skills where needed.

“A sense of purpose is what keeps me going,” she says.

“And something I’ve learnt over the years is that when a natural disaster strikes, the entire world sends out help […] but when it’s because of war or conflict, things are different, because there’s politics involved and that is when the volunteers’ contribution is most needed.”