WILL WE MAKE IT?

QantasLink Sprit - - Heaven Sent -

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

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