Graphic: RFDS Eyre Highway Nullarbor Retrieval
When Tony’s vehicle rolled off the Eyre Highway in one of the most remote areas of the country, he was trapped in his car clinging to life – needing the RFDS to land on the road to airlift him to safety.
After visiting family in Perth in late March, Tony Hudson set off on his way home to South Australia across the Nullarbor Plain.
It was a road trip the 53-year-old motorist had done “thousands of times”.
But on this journey, a large grey kangaroo leapt from the scrub. The roo clashed with the side of the car. The rest was a blur.
"The kangaroo came out of nowhere and I lost control – apparently the car rolled 50 metres,” he said.
Barely conscious, bones shattered and bleeding from the head, Tony was trapped. He tried to use his phone – but being so remote, there was no reception.
Using his CB radio, he managed to get hold of a truck driver, who called 000.
Graphic: RFDS Dr Edward James
“We received a 000 call and got some early information there was a single person high-speed car rollover.
"We quickly assembled a team with a critical care doctor, flight nurse and pilot, and started locating the closest airstrip so we could get to the patient as soon as possible.
"We prepared for every scenario, packing a range of equipment including our ventilator, blood supplies, spinal boards, extraction equipment, vac mats and medications.”
- RFDS Rural Generalist Consultant, Dr Edward James
Meanwhile, medical and emergency services crews came from near and far – nurses and Department of Fire and Emergency Services team members from the nearest town, Eucla, as well as paramedics from a nearby mine site.
Their expert care and immediate support was essential in extracting Tony safely from his car while the RFDS was on its way.
As the first responders came together, the RFDS team identified the accident location and discovered the closest airstrip was the road itself. Chadwick Airstrip is a designated 1,200-metre emergency highway landing strip on the Eyre Highway — one of just two such landing strips in South Australia.
Police and emergency services secured the highway, temporarily blocking traffic at both ends to allow the RFDS team from Port Augusta to land. For RFDS Pilot Matt Wedge, it was his first time landing an aircraft on a road.
Graphic: RFDS Nullarbor Retrieval
“At the RFDS, it’s always ‘go, go go’ – so this was just another challenge.
"After going through all the logistics of a road landing and ensuring the highway was ready to be secured, we had a discussion in the air with the crew about what needed to be done on arrival. You know generally what the doctor’s plan of action is and what they need, so I always just try and help out by making the journey as smooth and quick as possible.”
- RFDS Pilot, Matt Wedge
On arrival at the highway roadstrip, the local ambulance crew drove the RFDS team from the aircraft to the accident site, just 10 minutes away.
The RFDS team immediately identified that Tony had multiple life-threatening injuries. This included likely spinal injuries, a pneumothorax (collapsed lung) and an obvious head injury. Roadside surgery was going to be the only way to give Tony a fighting chance at survival.
Graphic: RFDS Nullarbor Retrieval
“When we got to the scene, the car was only a couple of metres from where the patient was laying. He was in a ditch covered in blood and dirt just off the road – his personal possessions scattered everywhere.
"Our main concern was that he was struggling to breathe – he had some air in his chest that wasn't in his lungs, so we needed to do a chest drain.
"A chest drain involves making a hole in the side of the patient’s chest, and you need it to be as sterile as possible. Trying to do that on the ground, surrounded by scrub and dirt with cars driving past at high speeds is not ideal.”
- RFDS Retrieval Rural Generalist Consultant, Dr Jess Martyn
The RFDS team, with the help of the first responders, transferred Tony from the ground onto a stretcher so they could carry out the procedures in the ambulance.
In addition to the chest procedures, Tony was then anaesthetised and intubated so a ventilator could take over his breathing during the three-hour journey to Adelaide.
Graphic: RFDS Flight Nurse Shannyn Fitzgerald
“We were fighting the sunset as we needed to get into the air before nightfall.
"I really don’t think the outcome would’ve been as positive if the first responders weren’t there and we didn’t arrive when we did.
"The first responders were fantastic, and really gave that initial care so everything RFDS Flight Nurse, was ready for when we arrived.”
- RFDS Flight Nurse, Shannyn Fitzgerald
On arrival at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, CT scans revealed the full extent of Tony’s injuries. Tony had multiple neck and thoracic spine fractures, significant rib fractures, a collapsed lung, injuries to his abdominal organs, as well as a concussion.
While initially expecting to be home in April, Tony finally walked through his front door in mid-June this year. He had endured three weeks in intensive care, an additional three weeks in general surgery, and almost a month in rehabilitation hospital. During this time, Tony's partner, Trish, travelled between Kadina and Adelaide daily to be by his side throughout his recovery.
“Coming home was overwhelming. Managing to give Trish a hug and a kiss, and seeing my dog who I hadn’t seen in months – he was all over me like anything,” he said.
"Even though I’m still recovering, I feel like I’ve won the lotto."
Tony was in utter disbelief when he eventually heard about the specifics of the roadside surgery and what was carried out to save his life.
“The first time I remembered anything was when I was in the ICU about a week and a half after the accident.
“If it wasn’t for the RFDS, I’d be dead right now. Hearing about the nurses and doctors basically operating on me on the road with all the dirt, dust, cars going by at high speeds, I can’t believe that.