As we travelled WA, we gave WA’s flying doctors their busiest months ever.
And that was off the back of the year to the end of June being the RFDS’s busiest on record. During those 12 months, the Royal Flying Doctor Service in WA retrieved 9012 patients and treated 15,600 people through their primary health care clinics.
“It was our busiest year in the history of our service in WA,” confirms a spokesperson. “We flew nearly 8 million kilometres over 22,300 hours across WA to reach our patients.” They have been retrieving an average of 27 patients a day from across WA — even evacuating up to 41 patients in one day.
The RFDS is the backbone of the health infrastructure across WA’s vast terrain — an essential link in the State’s health and emergency services network. And the flying doctor has a history of more than 90 years in WA.
It works from five bases throughout the State, to ensure a far-reaching geographical impact and prompt aeromedical response. The spokesperson says: “Our people in Broome, Port Hedland, Meekatharra and Kalgoorlie are part of the regional community and support the regional health infrastructure.
“We have a team of highly experienced specialist doctors, flight nurses, pilots, logisticians and engineers who all work together each time we fly. Sending doctors and nurses into the skies at a moment’s notice to reach about 25 patients each day who are spread across more than 2.5 million square kilometres takes a special kind of something.”
There is a 24-hour co-ordination centre at Jandakot Airport, which receives more than 50,000 calls a year. Logisticians know every remote station and airstrip on the WA map and co-ordinate services.
Highly skilled pilots can land on roads or dirt airstrips of all kinds. Their aircraft engineers are highly skilled specialists. RFDS Western Operations has 16 PC-12 turboprop aircraft and two LifeFlight PC-24 jets to fly across the biggest health jurisdiction in the world. They have access to 784 landing strips in regional WA. RFDS doctors have a wide range of experience in emergency medicine which can include trauma, intensive care, emergency care, anaesthetics, neonatal care and obstetrics. Flight nurses are also qualified midwives.
Each aircraft is essentially a flying intensive care unit, fully equipped with ventilators, monitors and innovative, purpose-built aeromedical equipment.
The spokesperson says: “Working in a flying ICU is a dynamic space. Medical and nursing crews are highly trained to respond with little outside assistance to time-critical emergencies.
“Before each flight, the medical team must decide what they will need for each patient. Blood supplies stored in the RFDS’ own blood bank, anti-venom, specialist equipment and medicines are some of the items they carry. They are exactly who you want by your side on what might be the worst day of your life.”
HOW TO HELP
Recent calls for help for holiday-related incidents include camping, vehicle, motorbike, helicopter and jet-ski accidents, snake bites and even two injuries from whales.
The RFDS is a free service. Donate at rfdswa.com.au.
Western Operations pilot
Michael Smart and his wife, Rachal, have both served the Flying Doctor in WA for just over 12 years. After being based in Derby, since November 2011, Michael has been at Jandakot. On any given day, he doesn’t know where he will be flying to or landing.
Michael is a highly skilled pilot who can land on roads and dirt airstrips of all kinds where your only light source is the runway lights on a moonless night. Sometimes he even liaises with locals on the ground to light the airstrip with vehicle headlights for night landings.
Working for the Flying Doctor combines Michael’s passion for flying, caring for people, photography and exploring.
A memorable flight for Michael was on a trip to Busselton, where he encountered a patient who looked like Clint Eastwood.
“The nurse, doctor and myself all stopped and asked what the patient’s name was and the ambulance crew said: ‘Before you ask, we have also asked the same thing and he quotes from Clint pretty well too’,” he laughed.
“Even though our patient was sick and needing transfer to Perth, he entertained us by quoting Clint’s famous lines and we had a lovely flight back to Jandakot. The ambulance crew on the ground at Jandakot reacted exactly like us. We managed to get some fellow staff members to believe we actually had retrieved Clint Eastwood.”
Port Hedland pilot
“A few years ago, I was on my way back to Port Hedland from Meekatharra when we were diverted to the Nanutarra Roadhouse for a vehicle accident involving tourists.
“Nanutarra doesn’t have its own airstrip, so a section of the highway has been designated as an RFDS road-landing site. This was both my and the doctor’s first time landing on a road with the RFDS, so we were both pretty excited.
“I flew low over the roadhouse and once there was a clear run, I set up for landing and did so without any issues, as we are trained to be able to do landings of this nature.
“The accident happened somewhere between Onslow and Nanutarra, so it took a couple of hours before St John and the police arrived with the injured tourists. We worked as a team (pilot, doctor and nurse) to ensure the patients were treated and prepared for flight and it was well after dark. So the police and a few other cars had to light up the road with their car lights to assist our take-off. That was an experience I’ll never forget.
“The Pilbara is an amazing part of Australia and well worth the visit. Anyone visiting the region must make Karijini National Park their No.1 place to visit.
It’s home to a challenging climate, so be sure to travel with plenty of food and water in the summer months, as temperatures can reach up to 50C.
“On the other hand, you’ll need to rug up during winter. Always pay attention when driving in the region as there are cattle and kangaroos about. Port Hedland is the hub of the Pilbara and a great place to base yourself whilst exploring the local area.”
DR STEVE HILL
Western Operations dentist
Working for the Flying Doctor as a roving dentist is a dream come true for Dr Steve Hill, who retired in 2010 after 40 years of practice.
Delivering dental care services to some of the most remote communities across WA combines his passion for health equity in the regions and exploring some of the State’s most breathtaking landscapes. It’s a stark contrast to working as a full-time dentist in the city.
Steve says the nature of his job as a roving dentist is unique, varied, rewarding and feels lucky to see so much of regional and remote WA. His patients are in the remote communities of Warburton, Wiluna, the Kimberley and Mid West.
No one shift is ever the same, with Steve using a range in modes of transport to get to this patients. This includes a 4WD, the RFDS’ dental van and a small light aircraft (his favourite) — which is used to fly into Warburton at 10,000 feet from Jandakot Airport and offers the best aerial views.
Steve said after nearly six years in the job, he’s used to seeing the same people when he visits the remote towns and enjoys building relationships with his patients. Highlights for him include interacting and seeing local artists at work.
“This one time, one of my patients offered to take me out mud crabbing,” he says. “I got my wellington boots on and we drove out and filled our buckets with beautiful crab and he even cooked it on the fire for me. That was special.” Some of Steve’s favourite landscapes include the view from Elephant Rock in Kununurra, the Bungle Bungle Range in Purnululu National Park and stretches of rich red dirt outside Warburton.
RFDS top-10 travel safe tips
1. Share your itinerary Let others know where you are travelling and when you expect to return. Check in with them along the way.
2. Pack plenty Take more than enough water, food, fuel, first-aid supplies and appropriate clothing.
3. Take enough medication Carry adequate supplies or your usual medications, as pharmacies can be few and far between. If necessary, carry a GP health summary with your medical history and a copy of a recent ECG if you have history of heart problems.
4. Talk to the locals Do your research and check in with the locals to make sure you are well informed about current conditions.
5. Avoid driving at night or dusk Visibility is low and there is wildlife aplenty.
6. Know your location Use an app or GPS to provide your exact co-ordinates so help can reach you fast in an emergency.
7. Know first-aid Learn CPR and how to treat snake bites, cuts and fractures until expert care arrives.
8. Carry a mobile phone and keep it charged.
9. Be croc wise, be ocean wise Our rugged coastline and waterways can be treacherous, so enjoy them safely. Be aware the Kimberley and the Pilbara regions are crocodile country.
10. Take us with you Keep the Flying Doctor emergency number on hand in case you need us: 1800 625 800. We are here when you need us the most. We are a free service, but as a charity, we welcome your donation to keep us flying further.