Graphic: Gene and Carmen

Gene's mid-air miracle

Date published

20 Oct 2015

Graphic: Gene and Carmen

Hear how Gene's heart was re-started an incredible 54 times during a tense life-and-death battle aboard a Flying Doctor flight.

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He didn't know it, but this would be a Monday like no other for Alice Springs bus driver Gene Hildebrand.

Steering his usual batch of passengers on their morning commute, Gene noticed creeping pain that became increasingly more worrying.

"The pain started – of all places – in my ears. It was weird and it slowly went down my jawline and my neck and caused a great deal of pain in my chest," Gene said.

Convinced he needed help, he stopped his bus and went straight to his workplace's medical clinic.Medical staff suspected something was seriously wrong with Gene's heart.

Gene was transferred by ambulance to Alice Springs Hospital where it was confirmed he was suffering a heart attack, and he was urgently given thrombolytic "clot-busting" drugs. Most patients who receive these drugs respond well, with blood flow to the heart quickly restored, preventing further damage, and, in many cases, death.

However, Gene did not respond.Medical staff knew Gene's life was now certainly at risk unless he could urgently undergo emergency heart surgery – in Adelaide. The Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) was alerted and an aircraft was readied for urgent departure from the RFDS Alice Springs Base.

"He looked terrible and grey when we first received him," says RFDS Flight Nurse Carol Illmayer.

"The first time he went into cardiac arrest, he was still in our hangar," Carol continues.

"Once we stabilised him we thought it would be safe enough to load him onto the plane."But the minute we put him on the plane he arrested again, and I think he probably arrested another six times before we could even close the doors on the plane." The crew faced a stark choice.

Graphic: Gene and Carmen

"Gene was very unstable. We had to make the decision whether to return him to Alice Springs Hospital where he most certainly would have died, or keep him on the plane and hope that he doesn't die before we could get him down to Adelaide for the treatment he needed," Carol says.

So, RFDS pilot Mark Haldane pushed on the throttle and the RFDS aircraft lifted off and turned south, caught now in a race against time itself. But the mid-air battle for Gene's life was only just beginning. "It was very, very busy. Gene's heart went from one abnormal rhythm to another," Carol says.

"We had to draw up multiple drugs to give him during the flight, his blood pressure was dropping and he was going in and out of consciousness."

During the flight, Gene required multiple electric shocks to restore his heartbeat to a regular rhythm.

Carol says she lost count of the number of shocks they administered on the plane, but, later learnt there had been an incredible 54 shocks.

"That's very rare, I've never had to shock a patient more than 10 times," Carol says.

Gene recalls: "There were times there when I thought, 'this is the end, I'm not going to make it.' But I kept saying to myself, 'I'm not going to die on this plane,'".

And Carmen, Gene's partner of 33 years, remembers her emotional struggle: "It was the worst moment of my life. He's the love of my life!

"I was told the RFDS pilot 'had his foot down' – and I got regular reports of the flight's progress – 'they're over Coober Pedy', 'they're at Olympic Dam'."

But soon after, there was another turning point.

"About an hour out of Adelaide I thought he wasn't going to make it," Pilot Mark says.

Carol says: "We had to rely on CPR then, to keep Gene alive. We were quite worried whether the Doctor and I could handle another 50 minutes of CPR, but fortunately Gene came back to us again."

(story continues below)

Graphic: heart defibrillator

Gene Hildebrand's life was saved because every RFDS aircraft is equipped with a heart monitor-defibrillator.
This crucial piece of equipment is used by our aeromedical crews to monitor heart behaviour when a patient's heart is acting erratically – or threatening to stop altogether.

The same piece of equipment performs an ECG (electrocardiograph) to generate a record of heart activity and aid diagnosis.

And, when the heart develops a worrying irregular rhythm, an electric charge can be applied to "shock" the heart back into a regular beat.

Each of these heart monitor-defibrillators costs $33,000.

New monitors will ensure that the RFDS can continue to give life-saving medical aid to people like Gene.
Can you help us, please, by making a contribution toward these purchases today?

Thank you.

As soon as the crew arrived at Adelaide Airport, Gene was rushed to the Royal Adelaide Hospital and straight into the operating theatre where his blood clot was cleared and a stent inserted in his coronary artery to allow normal blood flow to his heart.

The crisis had passed.

"I just cried tears of relief," Carmen says.

Today, Gene is home again and life is quickly returning to normal.

Night and day – and every day – the RFDS responds at a moment's notice to give people like Gene a second chance to live the rest of their lives.

In fact, we transport 24 patients, in South & Central Australia alone – every day.

And your valued support of our work means we can keep doing just that, because your support helps us to replace ageing aircraft and purchase life-saving medical equipment.

But our crews never know when a terrible emergency just like Gene's will strike again, and it is crucial we remain ever ready to respond.

Because of this, would you please send your donation today?