A Christmas to remember

Date published

13 Jan 2020

It was Christmas Eve in 2018 when RFDS Flight Nurse, Sabrina Montaldo had her very first emergency retrieval. Sabrina had only been with the RFDS for five months and was still on probation. But this was the day all her training was put to the test.

It was around midday that Mount Isa local, Ron Moren, set off an emergency locator beacon.

His boat had hit a submerged log, seriously injuring himself, his son Joshua, 20 and his 26-year-old step-daughter, Nicole.

The family were at Lake Julius, 70km east of Mount Isa. A helicopter, piloted by rescue services volunteer Simon Steel and with RFDS engineer Jim Lillecrapp as his spotter, was first on the scene. They immediately radioed the RFDS team, who were in the air returning from a patient transfer to Townsville, and met at the airport. Sabrina recalls:

“The helicopter was small but we ended up getting a lot of our equipment on there, which was good. I wasn’t too sure what we were going to need; we had no idea what the condition of the patients was going to be.”

When RFDS Dr Don Bowley and Sabrina arrived at the lake, they quickly saw the situation was critical. 

“Joshua was deteriorating. He wasn’t really speaking and was having multiple little seizures. Ron had a suspected bleed in his abdomen and Nicole had pain in her back. It was very intense.”

With the nearest ambulance still two hours’ away, it was up to the RFDS team to care for the injured. Thanks to you, the team had received the specialist training they needed to give excellent medical care in the toughest of situations.

The temperature was now hovering around 40°C, and the battery life of the medical monitors were starting to ebb away. Sabrina’s supply of IV fluids and pain medication was also running low. Then, it started to rain.

The RFDS instructed Simon to meet the approaching ambulance and bring back a paramedic with more equipment. The team then placed Joshua in an induced coma. 

Ron was sent in the first helicopter, accompanied by the paramedic. His step-daughter Nicole then followed in the next helicopter. By then, it was eight o’clock at night.

The ambulance then arrived and Joshua was carefully loaded into it with Sabrina accompanying him. He was intubated and placed on a ventilator to treat his severe head injury. Sabrina recalls:

“We drove through this horrible, horrible road. It was just like rocks and really rough terrain. Our monitors were flying left and right, and our patient’s blood pressure kept dropping. When you tried to hang fluids or give medications, you kept falling over.”

They met the Cairns rescue chopper halfway and Joshua was taken straight to Mount Isa Hospital. Sabrina returned to the Base by road, arriving back at nearly midnight.

Sabrina exiting RFDS aircraft

Muddy, sweaty and hungry, Sabrina was keen to get home to her family, who were waiting up for her.

The good news is that all three patients survived their ordeal and Joshua is now back working again.

Sabrina showed that day she had what it took to be a Royal Flying Doctor Flight Nurse, a job she adores. Dr Bowley, who has been with the RFDS for 25 years, told her she’d never get a case like that again.

Thanks to you, and our partnership with QSuper, nurses like Sabrina, right across the state, have the ongoing medical training needed to keep their skills up-to-date and help save more lives.