RFDS to the rescue – twice!

Popular television journalist, Natalie Barr, is known to most Australians through more than a decade as news presenter on Seven's Sunrise morning program. But back in 1983, Natalie was a schoolgirl living in Bunbury (WA) and wondering why the terrible back pain she was experiencing was not going away.

"I played netball and everyone just thought I'd pulled a muscle in my back," explains Natalie. "But it went on for months and months and just got worse and I couldn't sleep at night and I was screaming in pain. Finally an orthopaedic surgeon said 'you need to get to hospital and you need to get there now!'. My T11 and T12 vertebrae were virtually eaten through and my back was so fragile. I was told not to sit up or I may never sit up again. I could be in a wheelchair; that was how far my vertebrae had crumbled. The local hospital was not able to diagnose the particular strain of bug causing it.

"It was too dangerous to drive to Perth so I was dosed up with lots of drugs and wheeled onto a Royal Flying Doctor plane and flown to St John's Subiaco (hospital). They did a lumbar puncture and were able to trace the exact strain – I had osteomyelitis. This is something which normally occurs in a limb, not in the spine.

"My parents were completely frantic. It was absolutely frightening for me and my family. The RFDS saved me."

Once correctly diagnosed, Natalie went back to Bunbury spent the next eight weeks on a drip with high-dose antibiotics.

"My vertebrae grew back fused," says Natalie. "When I was strong enough I sat in a wheelchair and I was convinced I wouldn't walk again. I can vividly remember this all those years ago. Without the RFDS I would have been in a wheelchair."

On her first television job at GWN in Kalgoorlie Natalie discovered that rescue work wasn't the only thing the RFDS does. "I went out on a clinic flight to Lake Varley," she says. "That was my insight into the other part of what they do – everyone lines up who needs a doctor or a nurse and it's a welcome sight, that plane landing there."

Almost three decades later, Natalie was the parent who was very thankful for the RFDS.

"My eldest son was nine then and we were down at Dunsborough (WA) where my parents had a house," says Natalie. "The boys were on their bikes and suddenly he just came off the bike, right in front of me, and the handlebar rammed into his stomach. It didn't break the skin but he was in pain so I took him to the doctor at Dunsborough, then he went to Busselton hospital, then to Bunbury to hospital.

"I had a friend with contacts at Princess Margaret Hospital (in Perth) and they were concerned about him. He hadn't moved in three days, hadn't eaten and was in pain. They said I should get him up there.

"He was so fragile and the only way to get him up there was the RFDS. So, nearly 30 years later I took the same trip, this time with my son, being forever grateful. Within half an hour there he was in surgery, he had a punctured bowel! Stuff was leaking out and he was getting sicker and sicker.

"Again the RFDS saved our family," says Natalie. "Fortunately, he was just in hospital a week and now just has a cool scar to show his mates."