Graphic: aeromedical rescue photo

A tough year for Mum – a family recalls 1992

Date published

17 Aug 2015

Back in 1992, the Cullenward family was living on a property 12kms east of Enngonia, a tiny town 100kms north of Bourke.

"We had 50,000 acres with sheep and cattle," says Hamish Cullenward, now 26

"One day my brother, who was ten, and I were mucking around in the back yard with an old set of golf clubs and a flat soccer ball. At one point he swung the stick and it got me across the eye; it was a broken club with a sharp point! Mum had to drive me into town -- about 120 kms away and the Flying Doctor flew me to Sydney from there."

"The only things I can remember are jumping on the plane, where I had a vegemite sandwich, and my first memory of Sydney with all the lights at night. It was pretty spectacular."

"We were very fortunate that when I took him into Bourke the eye team from the Prince of Wales Hospital in Sydney happened to be there," explains his mother, Julie Cullenward. "The doctor sent us to the team and they said 'he needs to go to Sydney' and the Flying Doctor took us that night.

He was only four." But that scary experience was just a dress-rehearsal for the family.

Just a few months later daughter Annabel, aged eight, was attending her first pony camp, along with her mother.

"It was the first day, which was very exciting," recalls Annabel. "We were lining up to learn how to jump and suddenly a bird flew up and spooked my horse. I got thrown off and broke both my collarbones and then I was kicked in the mouth which broke my jaw in a few different places."

Julie, who had been cutting up the food for morning tea, looked up in time to see Annabel hit the ground.

"It was awful," recalls Julie. "I took her straight around to Bourke Hospital and they were saying she needed the Flying Doctor. We were in such a rush, my poor husband had to go and get the horse which had been left behind!"

Annabel only recalls seeing the bird flying up and then being wheeled on a trolley to be loaded onto the plane.

"The nurse talked me through everything putting me on the plane," she says. "I met the pilot, which was actually quite exciting, and then I was taken to Sydney. I had surgery on my mouth and it all got wired up. We were there for a few weeks."

At the time of Annabel's accident, Julie was doing her Dip Ed and had taken the final paper to the pony camp to work on. "It was in my bag and I ended up finishing it off in hospital in Sydney!" says Julie.

Meanwhile Annabel suffered from bad motion sickness which put her at risk whenever she had to travel once she returned home.

"They made me carry a pair of scissors around my neck and my mother was told that if she vomits, cut the wires with the scissors! I had one of my arms in a foam sling and for a few months I could only eat pureed food from a straw slipped through my teeth! I remember not having a lot of movement and being uncomfortable.

"We had a really good dentist in Bourke and he was able to cut the wire and take it all out once it was healed. I think it was a tough year for Mum!"

Today, Hamish works as an accountant in Wagga, enjoying life in a big country town after university and working in Sydney.

"My eye issue is ongoing," he says. "The lens was so damaged it was taken out and my eye was knocked out of shape. I can still see out of it but I pretty much use my right eye. But if I hadn't got the quick access to the necessary eye surgeons and specialists I would have definitely lost the sight of that eye. I've never forgotten, the Flying Doctor has always been my charity of choice."

Annabel, who now lives near Dubbo, is married and has a 10-month-old daughter.

"We'll hopefully never need it for her," says Annabel. "But it's a wonderful service."

"I think the Flying Doctor is the most marvellous institution," she says. "The service they do is fantastic for rural people. You can't underestimate how crucial that expert, specialist care is in a timely way. We were in Sydney five hours from the time Annabel had the accident and I was able to ask the specialist orthodontist who came to look at her whether it would affect her down the track. The relief of having him explain things was so important.

"We'll always remember what they did for us and always support them."