Brought back to life... twice

Brought back to life... twice: Colleen's story

Date published

24 May 2024

Richard Elliott thought he’d lost the love of his life when his partner Colleen Pickering’s heart stopped not once, but twice, in the middle of the night – in the middle of the outback.

Three years ago, Richard and Colleen opted for a reverse sea change – moving from the regional hub of Murray Bridge to the quirky desert town of Andamooka, 600 kilometres north of Adelaide.

The couple continued to run their electrical business while enjoying their new lifestyle off the beaten track, and in doing so, embraced Andamooka’s harsh outback environment and extreme climatic conditions.

But as it happens with life’s unpredictability, it was an innocuous day of work around the house that proved near fatal for Colleen.

“We were shifting furniture to get some carpet replaced – it was dusty and given my asthma, I was probably going over and above,” Colleen said.

“That night, I thought I felt okay. I went into the bedroom for a rest, but it was a feeling that didn’t go away.”

When Richard came to check on Colleen, she was struggling to breathe and deteriorating rapidly.

Despite being an isolated outback town, Andamooka is fortunate to have an RFDS Community Health Clinic, available on-call 24/7 for medical emergencies.

“I called the RFDS and it hit me that it was really bad when Colleen started saying her goodbyes, ‘Tell my kids, my mum and dad that I love them dearly’,” Richard said.

“We hugged and she tried to give me a kiss, but she passed out on the bed.

“I didn’t notice it straight away, but she was actually blue and had a purple colour to her lips. I went straight to give mouth-to-mouth, but I couldn’t because she was so rigid.

“So I started CPR on her – I didn’t get any more than half-a-dozen compressions in when I heard a bang on the door.”

Richard and Colleen
Photo: Richard and Colleen.

Richard was so consumed, he hadn’t heard the RFDS Ambulance pull up at their home.

With time of the essence, the RFDS Andamooka Clinic team led by Remote Area Nurse Jack King ran straight to Colleen.

Meanwhile, the team had the on-call RFDS Doctor on the phone providing further guidance.

“I got to Colleen and she was unconscious, not breathing, grey, blue and rigid – I did a very quick assessment and she was totally unresponsive,” Jack said.

“Immediately, I suctioned her airway but noticed just how swollen her tongue and the inside of her mouth was. It was plainly obvious with the clinical picture I had that anaphylaxis was the cause.

“I was almost certain she had passed, so we started resuscitating her – and after a few minutes of effective CPR, we were able to attach the defibrillator and emergency oxygen.

“I couldn’t get intravenous (into a vein) access because she was completely shut down and I couldn’t risk failing with the intraosseous (into bone marrow) needle.

“So, I made the decision with our on-call doctor to administer intramuscular (into a muscle) adrenaline.

"I knew we had to do something else other than CPR, but we had limited hands."

Within a minute, Colleen’s complexion went from lifeless blue to gaining colour and she began to breathe again on her own. But she was far from out of the woods.

“Usually, scenarios stop there. But that’s when the real job started for us,” Jack said.

“When Colleen got circulation again it was very difficult, because we had to continuously give her adrenaline and intravenous magnesium, and I had to constantly cannulate her in different areas.

“We finally got her in the back of the ambulance, but she was barely breathing.”

RFDS Remote Area Nurse Jack King
Photo: RFDS Remote Area Nurse Jack King.

Colleen urgently needed treatment at a major hospital, which meant getting her to the nearest airstrip 40 kilometres away.

When the ambulance had made it just halfway to the airstrip, Colleen’s heart stopped for the second time.

In the back of the ambulance in the pitch dark with his patient, Jack described the scene as the toughest moment of his career.

“She arrested again and we’d already been fighting for hours,” Jack said.

“I had a syringe of adrenaline hooked up to Colleen’s cannula and after speaking to the doctor via radio, I went ahead and administered more straight away while doing compressions.

“It took a few excruciating minutes…but her heart restarted and she began breathing for herself again.”

A revived Colleen was handed over to an RFDS aeromedical team comprising a doctor, nurse and pilot bound for Adelaide.

Richard had anxiously tailed the ambulance to the airstrip – at this stage, he wasn’t sure if he’d see his soulmate again.

“I cuddled her some more when she was on the gurney. She was in and out of consciousness, but she kept saying ‘I love you’."

Photo: The desert mining town of Andamooka.

Following a sleepless night, at 11am the next morning Richard received a call from the hospital.

The medical report confirmed Colleen had suffered severe anaphylactic shock due to dust and allergens disturbed during the furniture reshuffle.

Without the emergency care provided by the RFDS, Richard is certain he would’ve lost Colleen.

“I’m speechless in thinking if the RFDS wasn’t here, what things would look like not just for us, but the township itself,” Richard said.

Three days in ICU and a week in hospital later, the couple were finally reunited in the flesh.

“To me the RFDS is everything. They’re my heroes. If I didn’t have them, I’d be gone,” Colleen said. “It’s unbelievable that I’m here today – I actually died twice.”

Richard, Colleen and RFDS Jack King
Photo: A recovered Colleen and Richard with RFDS Remote Area Nurse Jack King.