Flying Doctors bring community to outback

RFDS Charleville nurse manager Joanne Mahony (right) has been taking to the skies for two decades.

RFDS Charleville nurse manager Joanne Mahony (right) has been taking to the skies for two decades. Photo: AAP

The work of the Royal Flying Doctor Service remains as vital as ever for people in rural areas as an outback Queensland base marks its 80-year anniversary.

Joanne Mahony was a final year nursing student when she was posted to the Charleville base of the Royal Flying Doctor Service in rural Queensland two decades ago.

It was love at first flight.

She quickly learned that a rural and remote practice was the best place to gain diverse experience in every facet of health care.

“You’d look after everything, from antenatal patients to geriatric care,” Ms Mahony told AAP.

“Medical, surgical, acute, sub-acute patients … it was the full spectrum. You get to use every nursing skill and knowledge that you’ve ever learnt, and you have to learn some along the way as well.

“I can safely say that no two days I have worked have ever been the same.”

But it is the singularly close relationships fostered – across thousands of square kilometres – that makes the job so special, she says.

“There’s someone that is currently one of our ante nates (antenatal patients) who I looked after as a little girl,” said Ms Mahony, now 45.

“So it’s really nice to see someone grow up and and have been part of their health care for such a long time.

“And there’s been some quite traumatic (scenes), like farming accidents and car accidents that I’ve been to, but one of the good things is that you get to keep in contact with the family through our primary health care work … you get to see their recovery through.

“I think, from a personal perspective, I don’t think you get that if you work in ED (emergency) – you see lots of trauma, you don’t see people on the other side.”

The locals are very supportive, she says. They will go out of their way to look after the RFDS workers when they visit – running the airstrips and lending them vehicles for retrievals.

“And when we go to clinic, someone always bakes a cake, which is delicious,” she said.

The daughter of a nurse, Ms Mahony grew up on a farm in Warwick, southeast Queensland, so she knew only too well the importance of the rural health service.

But when she became exposed to the remote distances covered by the RFDS, she fully appreciated how vital the work was.

“I think without those all these services we provide, you couldn’t live in some of those places at all,” said Ms Mahony, who is now based in Charleville on the Warrego River in the state’s southwest.

“RFDs as a service is 95 years old and still, for people in remote areas, access to healthcare is challenging, the tyranny of distance is still a challenge.”

And despite advances in medicine, technology and speed of travel, there are still some hairy moments when a patient desperately needs to be in a hospital setting.

“I definitely still have those moments where you think, I wish I was closer or on the ground,” she said.

In October, the Charleville base is marking 80 years since it was established to connect communities spanning 622,000 sq km of southwest Queensland to leading and often lifesaving health services.

They will host a party in the hanger, and there will be cake.

In the last 14 years alone, the base has treated more than 56,000 patients across 6700 clinics and transferred 8200 of them.

The fleet of air ambulances has flown close to 6.5 million km – the equivalent of eight return trips to the moon, the RFDS says.

Ms Mahony isn’t sure just how many of those trips she was involved in.

“I wouldn’t know, but quite a chunk,” she laughed.

“The pilots log their hours, I wish I’d started keeping mine. It would be a good stat to have.”


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