Farmhand to Flying Doctor
The mail plane was small. It didn’t fill me with confidence – one engine, one pilot. But he was friendly and made me feel a little reassured. I was 15 years old and heading out to Abingdon Downs Station in gulf country Queensland, to visit my school friend Klancie, and ‘help’ with the mustering.
The pilot asked if I’d like to follow the course of the Einasleigh River. I thought that sounded nice. But it wasn’t until we’d done half an hour of banking and rolling on our scenic tour, that I regretted my decision. When I arrived at Abingdon, the cowboys mentioned I was very pale – a reflection on both my city complexion and my motion sickness. I remember thinking ‘this is a bad start!’.
During the two weeks of mustering on horseback, there was a still and hot day I remember well. We were riding through rubber vine along the edge of the river. Klancie’s older brother, Campbell, was cutting through the vine with his knife, and a long cane flicked back and stabbed me in the eye. At first I thought nothing of it – the pain of being poked in the eye was insignificant compared to the stifling heat and dust of the muster. But the next morning when I woke and my eye was the size of a tennis ball, Campbell took me aside and called the RFDS.
It was fortunate that an RFDS clinic doctor was in Georgetown that day, about one and a half hours drive away, so Campbell took a day off his muster and drove me into town to meet the doctor off the plane. He had brown hair and a gentle manner, and in that moment I was inspired. Who is this person that flies into places unknown and fixes people who are sick? He was my hero. He showed me the cut across my conjunctiva and gave me drops to use every two hours. My eye was better within a couple of days and I continued the muster.
Five years on and I had spent many school holidays on Abingdon Downs. Sometimes on horseback behind the mob, sometimes in the poddy wagon ute, sometimes in a helicopter spotting cleanskins, but always working. It was my dream to be like these people – tough and enduring, but the clincher came when an RFDS Field Day crew arrived at Abingdon. They brought models and books and medical educators and it was all very interesting. Not to mention the spread of scones and ANZAC biscuits that the camp cook prepared.
At the end of the day, I mentioned I was heading home that weekend and the pilot and crew asked if I wanted to travel home with them. Well, that was the opportunity of a lifetime for me. Never before had I felt so privileged. A girl from Townsville on a KingAir with the RFDS, flying home across the outback after a mission to help people. That was it! I was determined to work for the Flying Doctor.
It took me more than 20 years to get there, with medical school, basic training and a fellowship in Emergency Medicine, but this year I realised my dream. Ironically and with sadness, it was on my very first day at the RFDS Cairns Base that I learned my friends had mustered on Abingdon for the last time after selling the property and ending a three-generation legacy. But the legacy they left for me will be long-lasting.
I hope to give back to the people of the bush, on the Cape and out West, by being there for them on the phone, in the air and on the ground, hoping to help in the way that both they, and the doctors of the RFDS, helped and inspired me.