RFDS patient Robert Crilly

When ritual meets rescue: Robert's story

Date published

27 May 2023

During a cultural ceremony in outback South Australia, Robert was struck by a sudden illness, sparking deep concern among family and friends. In need of urgent medical help, he was hundreds of kilometres from the nearest major hospital.

Proud Kokatha Yankunytjatjara man, Robert Crilly, is passionate about teaching his Aboriginal culture and heritage to younger generations through song, dance, art and storytelling.

He regularly commutes between Coober Pedy, the APY Lands and Port Augusta to carry out cultural commitments.

But in March 2021, a ceremony in Far North SA took an unexpected turn, when Robert began experiencing extreme stabbing pains in his abdomen.

In a wave of concern, Robert’s family raced him to the nearest health clinic in Coober Pedy, still in traditional body paint and ceremonial attire.

“When I was out on Country, I was in the spaces of men’s business and I got really, really sick. It came down to the point where the elders, my family and brothers took me into the clinic to get some health checks,” he said.

“The issue was my appendix. I didn’t know too much about the appendix – all I could tell you is that it wasn’t a good feeling and I was in a lot of pain.”

Coober Pedy
Photo: Robert suddenly fell ill, while in Far North SA, more than 500 kilometres via road to the nearest major hospital.

With no time to spare, the unexpected nature of Robert’s appendicitis meant he required urgent medical attention in Port Augusta, more than 500 kilometres away.

The RFDS was called, and an aeromedical team swiftly responded to retrieve Robert and airlift him to Port Augusta Hospital for emergency treatment.

A local ambulance transported Robert from the Coober Pedy clinic to airstrip, where he was greeted by RFDS Flight Nurse Angelique Galea.

“Angelique did a wonderful job providing care for me – she made sure I was comfortable by asking me the simple questions, ‘Am I allowed to touch you? Am I allowed to do this, am I allowed to do that?’

“It’s really good to see that we can come into a mainstream service and get that support.

“I was in a lot of pain, but having that kind face to let you know it’s going to be okay – sometimes the smallest things can do the greatest things."

RFDS patient Robert Crilly
Photo: Robert reflecting on his RFDS flight, two years later.

Reflecting on her experience of providing care for Robert, Angelique emphasised the importance of striking a delicate balance between critical patient care and respecting cultural sensitivities.

“When I opened the ambulance door, Robert was painted in traditional colours – he had just come straight out of the ceremony,” Angelique said.

“I asked if it was okay for me to touch him, put on monitoring and take his blood pressure – I asked him to tell me if it was inappropriate or whether he was happy to answer my questions.

“He was so grateful for the service and how we communicated.”

Following successful treatment in Port Augusta, two years on, Robert is in good health and has a renewed lease on life.

At 38 years old, he acknowledges his RFDS experience as a second chance to continue the two things he holds most dear: being a devoted husband and a loving father to his three children.

“A lot of the time, we look at the Royal Flying Doctor Service and we look at the staff as angels, because you’re taking our people up into the skies, into the heavens, and for us that’s special stuff,” he said.

“If it wasn’t for the RFDS, I wouldn’t be standing here today telling you my story.”

RFDS patient Robert Crilly
Photo: Robert with his wife, Wanita.

Since his RFDS retrieval, Robert’s relationship with the Flying Doctor has evolved from patient to partner.

For the past couple of years, he has actively collaborated with RFDS staff, engaging in various cultural training and events. Together with his wife Wanita, they have organised sessions involving their Aboriginal dance group, the Dusty Feet Mob at the RFDS Port Augusta Base.

“‘Closing the Gap’ means a lot more than words… it means action,” Robert said.

“For us, working together with the RFDS and walking alongside each other is really important – to grow for the future of this country.”

This National Reconciliation Week (27 May – 3 June), the RFDS is reflecting on this ongoing cultural journey and how it can continue to seek new ways to enhance its care and support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples through connecting with community leaders like Robert.

RFDS patient Robert Crilly