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U3A Writing: A Mantle Of Safety

Jim Graham outlines the foundation of Australia's famous Royal Flying Doctor Service ( RFDS) and his involvment with it which spans 50 years. He met the Very Reverend John Flynn, the founder of the Service.

"Without the RFDS the bush would be a far more dangerous place than it is,'' Jim adds.

Jim wrote this article while a member of a University of the Third Age writing group in Mildura. Further articles, stories and poems by Sunraysia U3A members will be appearing in Open Writing in forthcoming weeks.

Former Prime Minister, the late Sir Robert Menzies, described the establishment of the Royal Flying Doctor Service by the Very Reverend John Flynn - “Flynn of the Inland”- as “the greatest single contribution to the effective settlement of the far distant back country we have witnessed in our time”.

Flynn began his missionary work in 1911 when he was appointed as the first Superintendant of the Australian Inland Mission (AIM); his appointment came at a time when only two doctors served an area of 300,000 sq.kms in Western Australia and 1,500,000 sq kms in the Northern Territory.

Flynn told many stories to illustrate the need for medical care in the outback and one such story was that of Jimmy Darcy, a stockman injured in a fall near Halls Creek, WA in 1917 – Darcy was transported by friends thirty miles to Halls Creek, a journey which took twelve hours. The only person there who knew any first aid was the postmaster, F W Tuckett, and he quickly realised Darcy was seriously injured. He tried unsuccessfully to contact doctors in Wyndham and Derby by telegraph. In desperation he contacted his First Aid Instructor, Doctor Holland, in Perth and following diagnosis by Morse code Holland went on to instruct Tuckett through two long and painful bladder operations using a pen knife.

Holland then set out on a ten day journey from Perth to Halls Creek by cattle boat, Model T Ford, horse drawn sulky and finally on foot only to find that although the operations were successful, Darcy, weakened by undiagnosed malaria and an abscessed appendix, had died the day before.

By 1918 flying and the development of primitive radio communications had emerged as a means of effective communication and travel throughout the inland and Flynn adopted the ideas put forward by a young medical student and aviator, Lieutenant Clifford Peel, who was unfortunately killed in action over France shortly before the end of WW1. His idea was that a combination of air transport, radio communication and medical knowledge could provide good care for residents of the outback. Flynn convinced major sponsors including H V McKay, manufacturer of the Sunshine Harvester and Hudson Fysh, founder of QANTAS that the idea had merit and on 15th May 1928 the Aerial Medical Service was established as a one year experiment based at Cloncurry.

At the same time Flynn had combined with Alf Traeger, the inventor of the pedal wireless and together they cast what Flynn described as a “mantle of safety” across the inland of western Queensland and the Northern Territory and in 1930 the service spread nationally.

Having lived for over fifty years in remote Australia I am very familiar with the work of the RFDS and as well as attending regular clinics I have been involved in four serious personal injuries or illnesses.

The first occurred in western Queensland in 1958 when, because of the foolishness or malicious intent of the head stockman on the property on which I was jackerooing I was thrown from a horse he had insisted I try to ride although it was a notorious buckjumper. I wasn’t a bad horseman but was no match for “Mandrake” who then trampled all over me leading to a couple of weeks in sickbay and a lifetime of chronic back pain.

My second encounter and first flight in the famous Nomad, Mike Sierra Foxtrot , of TV fame, occurred when I overturned a Suzuki 4x4 on a greasy bush track on our property. These versatile little vehicles were notorious for falling over due to their narrow wheel base and high centre of gravity. I dislocated a shoulder and broke a couple of ribs and was airlifted to Broken Hill.

We men are known for our stoic fortitude and courage in the face of severe pain and as I lay on a trolley a tough old theatre nurse advised me “Stop whinging, Mr Graham, it's nothing like the pain of childbirth”— she seemed unamused when I asked her if she had ever tried to put one back!

About fifteen years ago I was again airlifted by the RFDS, this time to Mildura. I had been attempting to start a recalcitrant diesel motor; finally it surged into life and an unbuttoned shirt cuff became entangled in the vee belts pulling my hand into the pulley – from bitter experience I can vouch that it does not take long to complete one revolution of a six inch pulley at 1000 rpm and a couple of shortened fingers bear witness to the results of thisencounter.

By far the most serious occurred just over four years ago – I had been feeling unwell for a couple of months, tired, listless, occasionally breathless and recurring chest pain – all of which I dismissed as the passage of anno dominie, pulled chest muscle or even laziness; “I’ll be right, just getting old, not as fit as I used to be, no time to be crook etc.”

On 26th September 2007, feeling pretty ordinary, I took myself off to bed without an evening meal. About 10.00pm I was physically sick and very uncomfortable – Prue insisted on ringing the Ivanhoe Hospital. Although it is only manned from 9 – 5 the phone is switched through to an “on call” nurse – she offered to send the ambulance to meet us but we declined and Prue drove me the 70 kms into town – by the time we got there I was feeling even less ordinary and after a telephone consultation with the Flying Doctor in Broken Hill I was put on oxygen and a morphine drip.

About midnight the Doctor decided to airlift me to Broken Hill – the aircraft arrived about 2.00am complete with Doctor Bill Hines and Flight Nurse Brendan Kiely– the local Lions Club did a roo run along the strip to make sure it was clear as the plane arrived. My stretcher was loaded into the Queen Air and the ninety minute flight to “the Hill” passed in a morphine induced blur.

In the meantime Prue drove home and spent the day without rest organising things before driving the 450 kms of dirt road to Broken Hill; the fortitude of country women should never be underestimated.

After three days in Intensive Care it was decided I should be transferred to St.Andrews Private Hospital Cardiac Unit in Adelaide.

Again the RFDS flew Prue and me to Adelaide where I spent a further five days in hospital and then another seven days within close proximity of help before I was allowed to return home.

Our two sons flew to Adelaide and were a tower of strength to both of us, they simply took over and once I was out of danger they and Prue had a few very rare days together. The cardiologist, who understands country blokes said “You have an old pump, but as we all know if you look after an old pump and don’t run it flat out it will last a long time". I was sent home with enough tablets to stock a small pharmacy which I continue to take and will do so for the rest of my life.

All the above treatment over 50 years has been completely free. The RFDS is available to all, 365 days per year, regardless of race, colour or creed without cost and the men and women who fly the planes and provide the medical services are of the highest calibre and often put their own lives on the line by flying in all weathers and landing in many unsuitable and very remote locations.

So the vision of Flynn of the Inland lives on and continues to cast a Mantle of Safety across Inland Australia to the benefit of residents and visitors alike.

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