Graphic: Out of breath out of nowhere
Gasping for air. Down on all fours. Shannon was clinging to life in one of the most isolated places in the world.
On day three of an outback holiday adventure across South Australia, Shannon Barton-Ancliffe set up camp with her family at Innamincka in the state’s north-eastern corner, a town of no more than a dozen permanent residents.
Having made their way from Lyrup in the Riverland, north to Marree and then east to Innamincka, the avid campers were settling in for a couple of nights, eager to spend some downtime exploring the tiny outback town and its rich surrounds.
After dusk fell on the hot October night, Shannon started feeling “a little off". Thinking it was an innocent bout of hay fever triggered by sundown, she tucked in her two young daughters, Marni and Kiki, and tried to get some sleep herself.
“I remember doing the dishes after tea and struggling so much with it. I was getting short of breath and wheezing in and out – I couldn’t get a sentence out without coughing,” she said.
“It escalated incredibly quickly, to the point where I couldn’t speak or move. That’s when I started to panic."
Crawling out of the tent, Shannon called out to her husband, brother-in-law and sister-in-law for help – by that time her voice was a mere squeak.
“I was clawing at my neck, trying to figure out how to get air into my body. I wanted to get out of the tent so the kids couldn’t see what was happening,” she said.
"I feared the worst - I thought, 'what are we going to do if I die here?'"
Shannon’s husband, Jamie, immediately called 000, which was triaged to the on-call RFDS doctor based in Port Augusta, Dr Neil Thomson, who began providing emergency instructions.
“When I spoke to Jamie, it was immediately clear from his opening sentence that Shannon was having a really bad asthma attack,” Dr Thomson said.
“If I had seen her in an emergency department, I’d have had two or three nurses and a couple of other doctors around her. But she was in the middle of nowhere.”
With just her brother-in-law’s inhaler on hand, the family conjured a homemade spacer by punching a hole in a plastic bottle – a validated wilderness medicine hack supported by Dr Thomson.
This allowed Shannon to effectively inhale the medication, get it straight to her lungs and get enough breath to stay alive, albeit only temporarily.
“From the moment we were on the phone to the RFDS, they were amazing,” Jamie said.
“They pinpointed where we were, right down to metres off the creek, and talking with Dr Neil on the phone gave us such confidence. He had instructions on how much Ventolin we could give Shannon, and the course of action to take with the puffer and homemade spacer we had.”
At close to midnight, Shannon was 1,000 kilometres from home and suffering her very first asthma attack that was now threatening her life.
Fortunately for Shannon, the RFDS has a permanent health clinic in Innamincka to service the many travellers, workers and locals who navigate the arid country.
While first aid was being administered at the campsite, Dr Thomson relayed the emergency message to the clinic and the family rushed Shannon to RFDS Remote Area Nurse Chris Belshaw, who rapidly began emergency inhaled, oral and IV treatments.
Dr Thomson continued providing instructions over the phone while an RFDS Aeromedical Retrieval Team (comprising a doctor, nurse and pilot) was dispatched as a Priority 1 tasking from Port Augusta Base to retrieve Shannon.
"Shannon was in extreme distress when she presented – she was one of the sickest people I’ve seen here at Innamincka," Chris said.
"Severe asthma is a huge killer, so whenever you have someone in severe respiratory distress, it is life-threatening.
"We got her in, initiated treatment while speaking to the doctor and administered various medications to help with her breathing and settle everything down."
The RFDS clinic called upon Innamincka Hotel’s cook, Grantly, to secure and illuminate the local airstrip with flares for the incoming Flying Doctor crew.
"By the time the RFDS flight crew arrived, Shannon was looking a lot better. But with asthma you can deteriorate very quickly, so you’re much better off in a hospital where they can monitor exactly what’s going on," Dr Thomson said.
"If we hadn’t been able to get her into the clinic in a reasonable timeframe, she could’ve easily ended up in intensive care. She could’ve died."
As Shannon was transferred onto the RFDS aircraft bound for Port Augusta, she recorded a video message for her daughters and waved an emotional farewell to her husband on the side of the airstrip.
But as she took off into the dark desert sky, Shannon knew her stars had aligned.
"There was a huge sense of reassurance on the flight that everything was going to be okay," she said.
"Knowing that I was leaving my family behind was really hard, but I remember the nurse saying to me, ‘Think happy thoughts.'"
Shannon was safely airlifted to Port Augusta, where she spent multiple days in hospital recovering before being reunited with her family.
Diagnosed with adult-onset asthma, Shannon now has an asthma management plan in place and has been working with pulmonologists (lung specialists) to ensure her ongoing health.
"I’ve never had asthma before or any sort of asthma symptoms. So, to have a severe asthma attack in the middle of nowhere and have the RFDS help me out – I guess someone was smiling down on me."
With the health scare behind them, Jamie was over the moon to have Shannon home and the family together again for the holiday season.