RURAL LIFESAVER: Lindsay Hart with his wife Jennifer.
RURAL LIFESAVER: Lindsay Hart with his wife Jennifer.

Rural health service soars

PILOT Lindsay Hart will never forget the time the emergency services of the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) were called on at 3am in the morning to treat a person west of Emerald with a suspected snake bite - to his bottom.

The person was out in the bush, Mr Hart said, possibly camping. "But when we got there, a green frog had jumped onto the electrical contacts for the runway lights and they wouldn't come on.

"He had blown up the whole system. The frog was not okay, no, he was beyond transporting."

However, the man was urgently treated by medical staff on the ground via phone contact with the RFDS medical team on board the light aircraft as it flew to Longreach. There, the crew awaited word that the landing lights had been fixed and returned to pick up their patient.

"He was transported to Rockhampton and was fine. Think of the story he'll have to tell his grandkids."

Mr Hart, who is one of eight RFDS pilots in Rockhampton and the longest-serving pilot at the base, said the dynamics of who the RFDS helped had changed over the last 10-15 years, with many patients now being travellers to rural and remote areas, including many 'grey nomads', rather than locals and farmers in regional Queensland.

"The socio-economic dynamics are changing, where people want to come see the Central West and Outback, so it's a fantastic boon for the economy.

"It used to be that we mainly helped people from the area, but now it could be someone from anywhere in Australia or overseas."

In Queensland each year, about 95,000 people are helped by the RFDS from one of their nine bases in the state. The aeromedical retrieval includes inter-hospital transfers, GP clinics, telehealth services, and dental care.

Mr Hart, who lived in Emerald during the 1980s and has been in Central Queensland since the 1970s, is now based in Rockhampton where he has been with the not-for-profit Flying Doctor Service for 11 years.

As a boy growing up in Marlborough, between Rockhampton and Mackay, the Flying Doctor Service, which is also supported by many volunteers around the country, was a part of Mr Hart's life.

His mum was a trained "bush nurse", and also a fully trained hospital nurse who would help run clinics at the local Clarke Creek School, about two hours driving north-west of Rockhampton. These were organised in conjunction with the RFDS and helped people "with everything from snake bites to childbirth".

Mr Hart said he joined the RFDS when he was 45, as at the time that was the minimum age for joining the service, having previously been in aviation in Central Queensland, the Whitsundays, the Gold Coast and Hervey Bay.

"Flying has pretty much been my life. With the RFDS, you've got to get used to flying in and out of some marginal airstrips in the dark ... you've got to want to do it. It's pretty hard work, and it's fairly intense and very demanding.

"You have a lot of routine work, and then occasionally you pick up somebody who's just had a heart attack, or an emergency - we don't do the life and death work every day - but when you do, it keeps you going.

"Especially when it comes to children - every kid deserves a chance."

Mr Hart said an area like Emerald was an important regional centre which needed three major services: banking, schooling and medical.

He said that people, especially families, could not be attracted to a regional town without the assurance of these essentials.

"If we get a call and a diagnosis at breakfast, we can have the person in a major hospital by lunch time."

Mr Hart said an efficient medical service for people living remotely, far from hospitals, was crucial. He said people needed to know they could raise a family and "spread their wings" in regional Australia, and they needed high-quality support because "these people are the lifeblood, they're the economy and they're the future".

"From Rockhampton to Emerald, our reaction time for a high-priority case is half an hour."

As soon as a call is received, an RFDS aircraft is configured appropriately. "Then, when we arrive, we've got a nurse and a doctor and all the equipment that's needed. The patients have got first-class care from the moment we land."

Mr Hart said one of the challenging aspects of his job was the lack of feedback. "We drop someone off and we never hear of them again, although generally we've got a rough idea of how they'll go."

He said he had once been visiting a family member in hospital in Rockhampton, and was intercepted by a woman who he had transported to the hospital a few weeks beforehand with her premature twins who were unwell.

He had loved the chance to talk to the woman and find out that the babies were recovering. "That makes it worth doing.

"I'm only a small cog in the wheel, but on that occasion it was exciting to see that the machine had worked; people always say thank you so much, but it's the organisation that needs to be thanked. I play my part, and it's a marvellous system."

As Emerald was home to so many industries and lifestyles, including mining, farming, cattle, and work on citrus and macadamia orchards attracting seasonal employees, Mr Hart said the RFDS attended "any medical condition you could imagine" in the region.

The service recently took a child to hospital in Brisbane after they fell in a fire, an emergency situation where time delays can be devastating and quick treatment is essential.

They also not long ago transported a man who had lost a limb in a farming accident.

"They passed me an esky which had his arm in it. It was time critical. We had a narrow window to get to a major surgeon so he could reattach the limb."

The 'medivac' status - "which is our lights and sirens" - for transporting life-threatening patients either between hospitals or from a given location to a hospital, is used "wisely".

"We also have 'hospital status' which is what we normally operate with. We are allowed to speed though and you don't get booked."

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