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Outback Ordeal

Date published

16 Nov 2020

Young jackeroo Tommy was struck down by illness and was a very long way from the help he needed.

Tommy works on Brunette Downs, a large Northern Territory cattle station located 350 kilometres north east of Tennant Creek and 660km north west of Mount Isa, in Queensland.

While Tommy was known to suffer from a bad headache, this one was not going away. It wasn’t long before he also developed abdominal pain, blurred vision, rising temperature, and he had begun to vomit.

“I had a lot of pain, not the sort of pain I usually have with migraines, and I had a weird feeling in my stomach as well.

“When I started getting blurred vision, I thought it best to tell my supervisor that I wasn’t too good.

“Station staff did some checks and they decided to call the Royal Flying Doctor Service to airlift me out,” Tommy says

RFDS Flight Nurse Debbie Portelli, based at the RFDS Alice Springs Base, recalls receiving that first call for help.

“A number of very serious medical conditions came to mind when I first heard about Tommy’s symptoms,” Debbie says. “Meningitis was a possibility.”

Meningitis is an infection of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis is very serious and needs immediate medical attention. 

“In considering other possibilities, Tommy’s abdominal pain suggested appendicitis, but we knew we really needed to be by his side to assess his condition more fully, then determine how best to respond.” 

Soon after, as the sun was setting, a RFDS aircraft carrying an RFDS crew and a Retrieval Doctor from the Medical Retrieval and Consultation Centre rose into the sky above Alice Springs, bound for Brunette Downs – and young Tommy.

fire lanterns on remote airstrip

“It was dark when we flew over Brunette Downs, and our pilot could see that station staff had lit their airstrip with temporary lights,” Debbie recalls.

“They had also driven vehicles over and around their airstrip to clear away wildlife. But despite that, our first attempt at landing was interrupted by a couple of kangaroos crossing into our path, and we had to abort that attempt.

“After the pilot circled a couple of times, the way was clear to land, and when we stopped and opened the aircraft door, the only light came from torches and car headlights, red dust rising wherever we walked.”

Now that Tommy could be assessed personally, meningitis was ruled out – to everyone’s relief.

However, the danger hadn’t passed.

“It was more likely that he was suffering an attack of appendicitis, caused by an inflamed appendix,” Debbie says.

“Sometimes an inflamed appendix can rupture, leading to peritonitis, a very serious condition that can be fatal. 

“So, we needed to get Tommy to Alice Springs Hospital urgently to give him a chance to have his appendix safely removed before it could rupture. We administered pain relief and monitored his condition every moment of the flight, to be sure his condition hadn’t worsened.

“We were helped by being able to conduct blood analysis using one of our portable i-STAT kits, which gives us comprehensive blood analysis wherever we are, within minutes,” Debbie recalls.

Jackeroo sitting on horse

It takes eight hours to drive from Alice Springs to Brunette Downs, but the RFDS aircraft covers this ground in just 100 minutes.

Tommy had surgery at Alice Springs Hospital to remove his appendix and he made a full recovery.

He is back at work at the station now, able to look back on his experience.

“One thing I know – we are so lucky to have the RFDS,” Tommy says.

A message from Tony Vaughan ASM, Chief Executive, RFDS Central Operations

The RFDS is always there, every day and night, to respond urgently to frightening medical emergencies like Tommy’s.

In fact, every day the RFDS conducts 24 aeromedical transfers through South and Central Australia alone – 100 aeromedical missions across Australia every day.

During 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a fresh reminder to us all, of just how fragile life can be.

We rely on your kind loyal support to continue our life-saving work.