WILL WE MAKE IT?
AN EARLY-MORNING rendezvous with the Flying Doctor comes laden with expectation and the thrill of knowing you’re about to take to the air with these legends of the Australian bush. For veterans of the service, it’s all standard procedure; their daily duty. But for a first-timer, the anticipation is high, albeit challenged this morning by the sky above us as dawn breaks at Cairns Airport.
It’s depressingly grey. It’s wet. It’s cold. And the clouds show no sign of dispersing. There’s the prospect that if the weather doesn’t clear, we might not make it to Gilberton station at all. Taking off in Cairns is one thing; landing in remote Far North Queensland in such conditions is another. Which brings us to the question at the heart of the Royal Flying Doctor Service’s mission since it was founded in 1928 as a world-leading emergency medical operation of the air: will we make it?
Our pilot, Ross Thomas, explains that there are many challenges the RFDS can overcome but, occasionally, the weather isn’t one of them. “Sometimes there’s nothing you can do about it,” he says.
And so the Flying Doctor team waits and waits.
Then, just after 7am, a call comes through to the base from our destination: the persistent rain of the past 48 hours has stopped and the clouds are breaking
up. They are confident we can make the
trip safely and, soon enough, our Cessna C208 is airborne.
Mercifully, there’s no emergency to
deal with today. This is one of the Field
Days, an initiative run by the service
since 2001. The RFDS visits 18 remote properties in Queensland twice a year
for day-long sessions that double as opportunities for medical check-ups
and educational encounters. (The RFDS
also operates remote healthcare clinics
at stations in Western Australia, South
Australia and the Northern Territory.)
Locals come from far and wide to a
central meeting point – such as today’s destination, Gilberton station, home of
the French family – for everything from flu shots to cancer screening and, latterly, yoga classes, an acknowledgement that today’s Flying Doctor must embrace
health concerns broader than snakebites and broken legs.
Yet for Lyn French and her family
– the seventh generation at Gilberton station since the 1870s – the medics of
the air have at times meant the difference between life and death. They are very
close to Lyn’s heart. Like family, really, she says.
“You become reliant on them because
you know they’re at the end of the phone,
should anything happen. They get to
know you,” she adds.
“I had a bit of a health scare earlier
in the year. I was with a specialist and
they asked, ‘Who’s your local doctor?’
and I said, ‘The Flying Doctor.’ And they
said, ‘No, your local doctor.’ I said, ‘Yes,
the Flying Doctor.’”
Today, Lyn’s local doctor is preparing
to land in her “backyard”. After circling
the dirt airstrip, Ross brings us in and
we’re soon on our way by four-wheel drive to the Frenches’ homestead, a 20
minute trip across a small section of this
sprawling 35,000-hectare cattle station.
Lyn’s son, 28-year-old Ashley, is at the
wheel, navigating his way across familiar terrain, which includes a slow crossing through a swollen creek.
“How long have you lived here?”
someone asks Ashley.
“As long as I’ve been alive,” he replies.
The sun is shining in a clear blue
sky when we arrive at the homestead, where four generations of the Frenches are on hand to greet us: Lyn, 50; her husband, Rob, 53; his parents, Gus, 79, and Adelaide, 84; Ashley’s wife, Camilla, 28; and their young children, Robert, 6, and Ellie, 3.
We’re soon joined by about a dozen
people from properties within a 100kilometre radius – bush families who
gather on the vast verandah as Judith
Taylor, health promotion officer for RFDS Field Days, begins the program.
Judith, who’s been with the RFDS for
nearly nine years, starts by advising that
one member of the team, who was coming by road, has been cut off by the rain. “We were going to make hats out of bras!
But she’s stuck at the Oasis Roadhouse
and can’t get through. So we’re going to fly by the seat of our pants today.”
Hats out of bras? Yes, we heard right. It’s all part of using these Field Days
to not only bring health education to remote communities but also give them an entertaining angle that minimises any awkwardness about discussing intimate issues.
Even with the hat-making task off the
schedule, the team gives an informative presentation on the two key issues they’ve chosen for the day: breast cancer and testicular cancer. There’s some chortling alongside the serious discussion as
medical officer Dr Preety George delivers
her lecture on cancer awareness, which includes passing around plastic body parts for hands-on instruction and inspection.
Despite the intimate subject matter, the people at Gilberton station take the session in their stride, helped by a bit of casual humour. The laid-back attitude that is outback legend is on display, as is the spectrum of the community taking
part. One attendee, Julie, a miner, jokes:
“I put my town clothes on for this!”
What shines through is recognition that days like these are as essential as
the Flying Doctor’s emergency services.
As Lyn notes, unlike urban folk, out here you don’t have the option of popping up the street to a medical clinic for regular check-ups and advice.
“You’ve got to do these sessions with your partner,” she says. “Out in the bush, you’re not only husband and wife, you’re also best mates and you work together.
“And especially for the men, it’s good to be open like this and talk about things
and joke about it. At the end of the day,
if anything happens and you do need someone, you know you’ve got [family and neighbours] to help you and back you up.”
After the education session, it’s down to the practical business of the day. The
RFDS team sets up shop at the rear of
the house and the attendees traipse in
and out for consultations with Dr George and nurse Kylie Slade. Social worker
Taeha Condon is also on hand for any mental health counselling.
For Lyn, the RFDS has been there through just about everything, from
the birth of her babies to her own brush
with cancer. She remembers them
being a crucial resource when she was pregnant with her eldest daughter, Kerri-ann, now 29, and as the children were growing up. (Kerri-ann works in the Northern Territory, where another daughter, Anna, 24, also lives.)
“When our youngest daughter was seven, she had a horse accident and broke her leg and pelvis. It was pretty bad,” recalls Lyn. “They came and got her and she was in Townsville Hospital for three months.
“And when she was 16, she had a bad motorcycle accident and opened up the corner of her eye. They came and got her and she had emergency surgery.”
At those times, admits Lyn, “a lot of things go through your mind. What are we here for and how are we going to do this? And ‘I should’ve’ and ‘I could’ve’ done this or done that. But you become pretty resilient.”
Among the sources of comfort is an enormous RFDS medical chest that allows families in remote locations to deal with serious incidents on their own. It contains everything from bandages to hospital-strength painkillers, with the RFDS providing training on their use.
“I know what all the drugs are for,” says Lyn. “And in an emergency, if the phone’s out or you can’t get on to the Flying Doctor for whatever reason, you
feel pretty confident that you can deal
with what you have to do. Even by phone, they can always talk you through it. And if they can’t come in by plane in bad weather, they can come in by chopper. We always get around it somehow.”
That’s the outback way – as is the tradition of country hospitality that makes these Field Days extra-special. As pilot Ross says, “It’s worth coming just for the food!”
The French family puts on a glorious home-cooked spread for lunch: egg-and-bacon quiche, hearty spag bol and a
limitless supply of tea and coffee. Later
in the day, we observe the tradition of smoko, a break during the hottest spell of a summer afternoon. It involves cakes, snacks and more cups of tea; sitting around on the verandah, catching up with old friends and sharing stories.
As social worker Taeha observes, these moments are not just for the locals;
it’s also a time for Flying Doctor staff to
renew their bonds with people they see only a handful of times a year. “You get to know people very well,” she says.
It’s easy to see why Lyn calls them family. And if it were possible, she’d love them to visit more often. “I know it’s a big country and they have a lot of area to cover so we’re just very grateful for what we do get. They’re wonderful.”
Royal Flying Doctor Service pilot Ross Thomas prepares for departure (opposite); Gilberton station’s RFDS medical chest
(From top) Pilot Ross at the controls of the Cessna C208; Ashley French en route to his family’s cattle station in remote Far North Queensland
(From top) Field Day participants talk about men’s health on the Frenches’ verandah; Rob French gets a check-up in the makeshift clinic with nurse Kylie Slade (front) and Dr Preety George
(From top) Rob (left) and Ashley French catch up with men from other remote stations on Field Day; Lyn French with her grandchildren, Ellie and Robert