RFDS patient Phil Eley

Graphic: RFDS patient Phil Eley

Badly broken, barely breathing: Phil's story

Date published

30 May 2022

“Honestly, I thought he was dead.”

From touring the United States to traversing the Himalayas, 69-year-old Adelaide financial advisor Phil Eley has spent decades on motorcycles pushing the boundaries on some of the world’s most dangerous roads.

But when a ride on home soil went horribly wrong, the veteran motorcyclist was flung over his handlebars, crash-landing metres from his bike.

His friends at the scene, Bill and Lindon, feared the worst.

“Phil and his bike were thrown six feet in the air at least,” Bill said.

“By the time I got there, he was lying on the side of the road completely motionless with the bike just smashed to bits.”

The mates were returning to Adelaide from Birdsville on a birthday biking adventure when Phil crashed – 150 kilometres from the South Australia-Queensland Border.

Phil Eley on the Birdsville Track
Photo: On the way home, Phil and his mates encountered tough conditions on the notorious Birdsville Track.

After passing only a handful of cars throughout their trip, it was pure luck that a young couple they met in Birdsville the night before was travelling 10 minutes behind the motorbike trio.

One of the young tourists, 28-year-old Sarah ran to his aid.

“He was completely still at this point and his friends were distraught – I honestly thought he had passed away,” Sarah said.

After a terrifying few moments, Phil eventually regained consciousness. He vividly recalls the uncertain breaths that followed.

“All I remember is the road feeling like an ice rink and I was madly trying to straighten my bike when suddenly the whole world turned upside down,” Phil said.

“I knew I was in a very bad way – I could feel my heartbeat ricocheting off the road and rattling around my shattered ribs.”

As the group sheltered from the harsh 35-degree conditions in the shade of their vehicle’s awning, Sarah and her partner Luke wrapped Phil in a space blanket. 

Meanwhile, Bill triggered an emergency beacon and Lindon was dispatched to contact nearby rangers, who by chance, were working on a local water bore.

“I just went into first responder mode and placed Phil in the recovery position,” Sarah said.

"Once we could see he was breathing and talking, we knew we needed to get the Flying Doctor here."

Group provide first aid to Phil Eley
Photo: Sarah leads the group in providing first aid to the critically injured Phil.

After a harrowing one-hour ride to Clifton Hills Station, the nearest airstrip, the group made contact with the RFDS.

The Doctor at Port Augusta Base relayed medical instructions over the phone, directing the responders through cutting away Phil’s clothes and securing his arms with makeshift splints.

"In the background, I heard confirmation that radio contact had been made and the Flying Doctor was coming. I instantly felt reassurance," Phil said.

“I didn’t know what was wrong with me apart from the obvious. I did catch a glimpse of my right wrist at a ridiculous angle to my arm and was told, ‘That was the good one'."

Meanwhile, under direction of the on-call Doctor, Clifton Hills Station Manager Fiona provided Phil with emergency medication from an RFDS Medical Chest while they waited for the Flying
Doctor crew to arrive.

“It wasn’t long before I heard the blessed sound of the aircraft whizzing by and then the voice of authority – the Doctor and the RFDS team,” Phil said.

“I realised that we’d been on the road for four days and were hundreds of kilometres from Adelaide – but the RFDS crew was calm and professional, explaining what was about to happen.”

Phil Eley gets transferred onto RFDS aircraft
Photo: Phil being transferred onto an RFDS aircraft bound for Adelaide.

The accident left Phil with six broken ribs and two badly fractured wrists. He underwent surgery and was discharged from hospital six days later to the care of his wife, Jenny.

“The reality was he couldn’t do anything for the first month,” Jenny said.

“He couldn’t shave, eat or even brush his teeth.”

Today, months on from the crash, Phil is on the road to recovery – enjoying more independence and slowly regaining functionality in his wrists.

In all his years of riding, he remains gobsmacked by how many people – young travellers, local rangers, remote cattle station workers with access to a Medical Chest and the Flying Doctor retrieval team – came to his aid on one of the loneliest roads in Australia when he needed it most.

“I’m so grateful that I live in this fantastic country where outback hospitality extends way beyond the norm and where we have medical services like the Flying Doctor that can pluck you off a dusty track hundreds of kilometres from home and bring you to safety."

"One of the first things I did when I got home was sign up as regular donor for the RFDS."

Phil Eley with helmet
Photo: Phil's beaten-up helmet reminds him of how lucky he was to escape the near-death experience.