Graphic: Ruth Sandow's inspiring path with the RFDS
In the remote landscapes of rural New South Wales, Ruth Sandow's story with the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) unfolds as a testament to determination and community spirit.
After almost 14 years on the Board of the Royal Flying Doctor Service (South Eastern Section), Ruth will step down mid-year and is encouraging passionate community members, particularly those with experience in remote areas, to join the Board and help shape the future of this vital organisation.
You could say Ruth’s journey to the RFDS started over forty years ago when Ruth, her husband Jon, and her infant child David ventured from South Australia to Pimpara Lake Station, 237km north of Broken Hill.
Ruth recalls, "It was a fairly daunting decision to move into an area that's relatively remote. In those days, the roads were pretty ordinary and our communication with the outside world was limited mostly to HF radio, or a telephone that worked on and off.”
While Ruth’s background as a registered nurse came in handy over the years, the first thing the family came to realise about their new home was that the Royal Flying Doctor Service was constant, contactable and essential lifeline in the bush.
Graphic: Ruth, her husband and their grandchildren
As Ruth puts it, "They were our first point of call in an emergency, or just a general health issue or primary health matter. That gave us a certain degree of comfort, if you like.”
It’s a comfort that Ruth and her family have had to take advantage of over the years, “I wouldn't say we have RFDS frequent flyer points, but we have had the odd occasion when we've needed to have someone evacuated from the property or have been evacuated ourselves.”
Ruth and Jon went on to have two more daughters, Elizabeth and Jenny. Growing a family in one of the most remote parts of Corner Country highlighted how limited access to antenatal care is for people living in remote areas.
“With Elizabeth, we did end up in a bit of an emergency situation when she was born. This really sharpened my focus on what we really need in the bush in terms of primary health centres, clinics on properties, so that people, particularly young mothers who need that antenatal care, as well as others who have got general health inquiries, can reasonably access primary health services.”
Ruth's personal ordeal with breast cancer in 1995 profoundly deepened her connection with the RFDS. "When you're 700 kilometres away from an oncologist, a radiotherapy unit, and surgery – all those things that aren’t quite as challenging for people living in the cities – you rely heavily on the RFDS.”
“The Flying Doctor was an important reference for me – first in diagnosis, then in follow-up treatment; the oncology treatment.”
Graphic: Ruth Sandow
Ruth's gratitude for the RFDS's support during this challenging time was immense. "That kindness and that support that not just I, but our entire family received... helped me make the decision, that when I was asked if I would like to join the board, I didn't hesitate."
Joining the RFDS South Eastern Section Board, Ruth embarked on a mission to give back to the service that had given her so much. She admits that initially, the complexity of the organisation was overwhelming. However, her determination and unique perspective as a bush resident played a crucial role in her contributions to the Board.
“A question I had to ask myself was, what can I contribute to the Board? And this is a question many others who live on the land that consider joining the Board may ask themselves as well.”
The answer, according to Ruth, is deeply rooted in understanding what it’s like to live in the bush. “We understand what it's like to have a sick child in the middle of the night. We understand what it's like to have someone come off a motorbike and break a leg 200 kilometres from a medical centre. We understand what it's like to have a chronic illness and need help.”
“But we don't want to move from our place of residence – a place that we love – into another environment that might be able to offer more medical help. We come into a role like this with the knowledge that experiences – like I had with breast cancer and so forth – can be minimised by offering of a service that cares and can deliver. Like the RFDS.”
There are other transferable skills that people from the bush can also contribute to the Board; running a property or a business, managing operations and teams, understanding finance and complying with regulations are all highly valued skills.
"I'm hopeful that my legacy is that we have improved and increased delivery of primary healthcare in our communities."Ruth Sandow
“It's a board where everyone has a common focus,” Ruth explains. “Everyone is so respectful of one’s background and lived experiences. There's nobody there who doesn't believe that the RFDS is there to provide ongoing healthcare for people in remote regions of not just New South Wales but Australia wide.”
This came to the fore during COVID, when Ruth was then President of the RFDS South Eastern Section. Attending a national Board meeting at the beginning of the pandemic was an eye-opening experience.
“One of the national Independent Board members gave an impassioned talk from a medical perspective about the potential impact that COVID was going to have on Australia. I remember almost being reduced to tears. That was the point of realisation that we had something really serious going on here, and that RFDS was likely to become integral in ensuring that Bush communities and remote communities were safe.”
As the pandemic wore on, the South Eastern Section became a key distributor and administer of COVID vaccinations across a broad area – extending well beyond its traditional footprint in Western and Far West NSW, to also support communities to the East.
It’s an experience Ruth is particularly proud of. “I think we made a fantastic contribution to the welfare of people in the bush in response to COVID.”
Ruth's advocacy for better healthcare access in remote areas has helped shape the RFDS as we know it today. "I'm hopeful that my legacy is that we have improved and increased delivery of primary healthcare in our communities," she says.
Graphic: RFDSSE Board member Ruth Sandow
As she prepares to step down, Ruth reflects on her time on the Board with pride and humility. "It's been quite a journey."
Her story is an invitation to others in rural and regional NSW to join the RFDS Board, to use their unique perspectives to continue the vital work of the RFDS.
"Join us in this journey," she urges. "Your voice, your experiences, they matter."
As Ruth looks to the future, she sees a bright horizon for the RFDS, strengthened by the commitment and involvement of people from the bush.
The Board of RFDS South Eastern Section is seeking a voluntary Non-Executive Director with a passion for and commitment to advancing access to healthcare across regional, rural and remote communities. As an active member of a skills-based Board of Directors, you will support the strategic direction and the governance of the organisation.
Applications close 5pm 29 March 2024.
DOWNLOAD THE EOI