Graphic: A close shave: Ash's story
After regaining consciousness, station owner Ash spotted his battered motorbike in nearby scrub. The damage to his own body remained a mystery.
Among the vast expanse of Mahanewo, a remote sheep station more than 400 kilometres north of Adelaide, owner and sixth-generation farmer Ash Williams set off for a day of mustering.
With an estimated 11,000 livestock across 119,000 hectares, the Mahanewo team spend long days covering all corners of the property to gather sheep ahead of shearing season every February.
On this occasion, about 25 kilometres from the station’s homestead, an unforgiving dirt track sent Ash flying from his motorbike, knocking him unconscious.
“It appeared I’d hit a rock and it launched me onto the ground,” Ash said.
“The next thing I remember was waking up in a daze. It took me a good 30 seconds to realise where I was and that I’d even been on a bike."
Wounded and disoriented, Ash spotted his battered bike in nearby scrub.
As the adrenaline and shock waned, the pain came. Struggling for breath, he slumped under a nearby tree.
“I went to pick the bike up and I physically couldn’t move it. At that point, I realised something wasn’t quite right. My back, chest… everything was hurting.”
Ash was alone at the time. He had started the day with his station manager, before they had headed off on different tracks.
“Karl had worked out that I was no longer behind him, so he called me on the radio,” he said.
“I went to answer and that’s when I realised I couldn’t speak.”
With his only lifeline a faint grunt for help through his UHF radio, Karl located Ash and carefully loaded him into a ute bound for the homestead.
“The 25-kilometre trip on the dirt was torturous,” Ash said.
“It was a better alternative to the back of a motorbike, but the pain had well and truly kicked in,” Ash said.
Back at the homestead, as station staff tried to comfort Ash in excruciating pain, an emergency call to the RFDS was made.
“We got a phone call mid-morning that someone had come off their motorbike at about 50 to 60 kilometres per hour, had initially lost consciousness, and was in severe pain,” RFDS SA/NT Clinical Director Retrieval Services Dr Merv Atkinson said.
“When you have minimal information, it's always time critical. As a team, we discuss the potential risks and injuries and how we're going to deal with them. As a flying intensive care unit, we carry everything we can in the back of the aircraft.”
An RFDS medical team of four: Dr Atkinson, alongside another doctor, flight nurse and pilot, departed the RFDS Port Augusta Base to retrieve Ash.
Meanwhile, more than six hours’ drive away at their family home in Auburn, Ash’s partner Laura was perplexed to see Ash’s name pop up on her phone.
“I got a call from Ash, which was unusual because I knew he was mustering all day and not at the homestead – the only place you can make phone calls,” she said.
“I realised something wasn’t right because he was struggling to get words out, so I asked him to put me on to someone else, who explained the Flying Doctor was on its way.
“Obviously, not being there, things started mulling over in my head.”
Still uncertain about the extent of his injuries, Ash couldn’t help but wonder how bad things were.
But before long, an unmistakable sound cut through the angst – an RFDS PC-12 aircraft echoing above.
“When I heard the RFDS plane, I remember feeling overwhelming gratitude, but also guilt that they had come all this way for me,” Ash said.
“Once they arrived it was a sense of relief. It put my mind at rest knowing there wasn't anything they couldn’t handle.”
On arrival at Mahanewo, the Flying Doctor team was driven from the nearby dirt airstrip to the homestead, where they conducted a head-to-toe assessment on Ash.
Dr Atkinson identified suspected significant neck and spinal injuries that needed urgent treatment in Adelaide.
Without the RFDS team’s expert care, Ash could have been paralysed or had a lung collapse.
“When we arrived, Ash was unable to move the top half of his body due to pain and was taking rapid shallow breaths,” Dr Atkinson said.
“We had to get some good pain relief into him so he could be safely immobilised on a stretcher ready for flight. This involved carefully placing him on a vacuum mattress, which hugs the body and prevents the movement of any broken bones.
“With the airstrip a couple of kilometres from the homestead, we had to get Ash in the stretcher on the back of the ute, securing it as best we could, and carefully drive back to the aircraft. There are no ambulances out there, so it’s literally the only option.”
Ash was safely transferred from Mahanewo Station to the Royal Adelaide Hospital(RAH), where he was taken straight into the emergency department for scans and treatment.
Laura had made her way from Auburn to Adelaide to be by his side.
“When I got to the RAH, I could see the ambulance bay and out of all the patients, Ash had the biggest group of SA Ambulance and RFDS people around him – that had me quite worried,” Laura said.
“When I eventually came into the trauma area, it was shocking. Ash was hooked up to lots of machines, lying flat and he couldn't move. I was just glad to be with him at that point.”
Scans confirmed that Ash had breaks throughout his upper body – he fractured two ribs, two vertebrae in his neck and two vertebrae in his back. He spent the next seven days in hospital, before embarking on a long recovery at home under the care and aid of Laura.
Months on, with Ash back on his feet, Laura often reflects on the accident as a reminder of their precious life together with their young family.
“Today the biggest emotion I’m feeling is gratitude for a service like the RFDS. Being quite remote, I'm not quite sure what Ash’s recovery or treatment would have looked like if we didn't have access to such timely emergency care,” she said.
“When we come up to Mahanewo as a family, it’s a time to be together. We go campingand enjoy marshmallows on the fire surrounded by emus, kangaroos and other wildlife. The sky is probably as big as you'll ever see and the beautiful landscape is quite spiritual.
“When we do come to the station, especially with the kids, it is reassuring to know that care is never too far away.”
Ash hates to think what the alternative would have been if it wasn’t for the Flying Doctor, the team at the RAH and the support from Laura.
“My pain was getting worse and worse as time went by. There’s 80 kilometres of rough track into the station. It would’ve been horrific to have to drive all the way to Port Augusta for medical help,” Ash said.
“The timeframe from my accident to being in a hospital bed was amazing – we've gone from the middle of the outback to the Royal Adelaide Hospital in a few hours.”
“To me, the RFDS is providing a service to the outback, that without, would cost lives and a lot of suffering.”
Help keep the Flying Doctor flying for people like Ash.