Graphic: Cardiac patient baby Scarlett Morgan

Saving baby Scarlett

Date published

05 Oct 2017

When Morgan Wallis watched her ‘normal’ baby girl suddenly start to vomit after every feed, little did she know that they would soon be faced with a race against time – and distance – to save young Scarlett’s life.

Smiling Scarlett 3 days before she got sick

Scarlett Wallis is a gorgeous blonde-haired little girl with a beautiful smile. Like many children her age she loves painting, playing outside and watching her favourite show, The Wiggles. She can’t wait to celebrate her second birthday with a party and a Peppa Pig cake this month. 

But little Scarlett has endured more in her 23 months than most of us do in a lifetime. When Scarlett was six months old, she began vomiting after every feed. Scarlett’s parents, Morgan and Ben, rushed her to their local GP in Laura, in country South Australia, who suspected pneumonia and ordered urgent chest x-rays in Adelaide. 

Scarlett’s condition was now so critical that there wasn’t time to make the two-and-a-half hour drive to Adelaide’s Women’s and Children’s Hospital. The Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) was alerted and a RFDS aircraft and aeromedical crew landed at Port Pirie to evacuate Scarlett and Morgan to Adelaide in just 30 minutes. 

At three o’clock in the morning, specialists diagnosed Scarlett with coarctation of the aorta – which was causing heart failure – and immediately scheduled open heart surgery at Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital. 

“It was terrifying”, remembers Morgan.

“In less than 24 hours we’d gone from ‘your little girl has pneumonia’ to ‘she needs open-heart surgery.’”

Scarlett on board the RFDS aircraft

Time was critical – driving the 700 kilometres to Melbourne by ambulance wasn’t an option. 

Once again, the RFDS and now a MedSTAR Kids retrieval team were there – ready to transfer Scarlett and Morgan for life-saving treatment in a RFDS ‘flying intensive care unit’. 

That’s when the family were told the gut-wrenching news: there was only a 15 percent chance that Scarlett would survive the flight.

“What I felt on that flight, watching my little girl sedated and hooked up to machines, is indescribable. I just kept telling myself that we were in the best and safest hands possible,” says Morgan.

“I don’t think I took my eyes off Scarlett the entire way – though I remember being offered a warm jacket at one point. I must have been shivering. The team’s compassion was amazing – looking after me, whilst their focus was on keeping my daughter alive,” she says.

Upon arrival at Melbourne, there was more devastating news to come. 

“We were told Scarlett’s heart was three times bigger than it should have been. She was living off of one lung and her tiny body was beginning to shut down,” Morgan says.
The consultant said the words no parent wants to hear – the likelihood of Scarlett surviving the operation was less than 20 percent.

Scarlett was wheeled into the operating theatre and an agonising wait began. 

Scarlett in hospital following open heart surgery

Morgan says she’ll never forget the consultant’s update just three hours later: “the surgery was successful”.

“Relief washed over my husband’s face as I shared the first good news of 72 hours. Our precious Scarlett was a fighter.”

Scarlett spent the next three weeks in Melbourne, before another aeromedical flight by the RFDS back to Adelaide’s Women’s & Children’s Hospital to complete her slow but steady recovery.

“When we eventually left hospital, Scarlett needed three different medications – one of which we had to inject – and was fed through a tube in her nose,” says Morgan.  

“It was a lot to take in – and we knew we had a long road ahead – but we were just so happy to be taking our little girl home.”

"Scarlett’s progress over the last eighteen months is just incredible. Whilst she’s needed some extra support along the way, she’s doing so well. She recently took her first steps – such a special milestone.”

Scarlett smiling as she recovers

RFDS Flight Nurse Lovely Victor clearly remembers that important flight: “Baby Scarlett urgently needed cardiac surgery – it was absolutely time critical.”

“It’s such a privilege to care for not just our patients, but their families, during a crisis. To hear that Scarlett is now fighting fit, about to celebrate her second birthday, is just wonderful,” Lovely adds.

“I don’t like to think about the alternative outcome” says Morgan.

“‘Grateful’ doesn’t even begin to describe it. Quite simply, if we hadn’t had access to the Flying Doctor, Scarlett would have died.”

RFDS Pilatus PC 12 aircraft interior with baby cot

RFDS Chief Medical Officer Dr John Woodall says it is the bespoke medical fit-out of the Pilatus PC-12 which transforms the Swiss-built turbo-prop aircraft into a ‘flying intensive care unit’.

“Ultimately it is the clinical expertise and competency of the medical crews that deliver the ‘intensive care in the air’, but an ICU setting cannot be created without significant investment by the organisation in its assets, systems and innovation,” Dr Woodall says.

“The RFDS medical fit-out of the Pilatus PC-12 provides the flexibility and versatility required for our work; it has the capability to transport two stretchered patients cared for by a single clinician through to a single critical patient who requires continuous monitoring by a retrieval team on board.”

RFDS aircraft

At an investment of more than $7 million each, Dr Woodall said the RFDS fleet of medically-equipped aircraft were designed to maintain the level of intensive care in-flight to that received by a patient at a major hospital. 

“In the case of baby Scarlett, equipped with a Mansell Unit (ICU humidicrib) and MedSTAR Kids retrieval team on board, we were able to maintain the intensive care now required by Scarlett at the Women’s & Children’s Hospital during her flight to Melbourne for surgery,” Dr Woodall says.

Other clinical features of the RFDS aircraft are its pressurised cabin plumbed with oxygen, which not only enhances the delivery of oxygen to critical patients at altitude, but also reduces compromised bodily function from the expansion of internal gases.

“The aircraft has in-situ suction to clear airway blockages, and purpose-built to carry state-of-the-art equipment such as heart monitor-defibrillators to monitor and manage cardiac patients during flight,” Dr Woodall says.