Graphic: outback car crash RFDS Central Operations

World turned upside down

Date published

22 Nov 2021

This is every parent's nightmare – arriving at an accident scene to discover one of your children unconscious.

That’s exactly what happened to Karina and Gerard Sheehan on a dirt track near the Beverley Uranium Mine, more than 500 kilometres north of Adelaide. They were 40km from their home, Moolawatana Station, in the northern Flinders Ranges.

“We just saw a big pile of dust and I said to my husband, that’s the ute — Randal’s rolled it,” Karina says. Both Randal and his girlfriend Isla were thrown from the vehicle.

“We didn’t know if they were dead or alive. Isla was conscious and laying on her back with her knees bent but I was worried about possible spinal damage.

“Randal was lying mostly on his stomach, unconscious, eyes open and bulging.

“The first thing you think of is contacting the Royal Flying Doctor Service.”

Randal and Isla

With the help of paramedics and the Emergency Response Team from the nearby Beverley Uranium Mine, the Sheehans were able to relay Randal and Isla’s conditions to the on-call Doctor at RFDS Port Augusta Base.

A RFDS retrieval team comprising two Doctors and one Flight Nurse boarded a standby aircraft and departed immediately for Epic Energy 3, the nearest airstrip to the crash site. 

“When we arrived, Isla was awake and talking but had some trouble breathing.” Dr Jess Martyn said.

"Isla then had an ultrasound and some blood tests which were reassuring she was not bleeding internally.

“Randal’s ultrasound showed he had bleeding inside his abdomen and a blood transfusion was started. Randal then stopped responding completely.”

Randal had a severe brain injury

A trip to the Royal Adelaide Hospital (RAH) by road would have taken more than seven hours. The RFDS flying intensive care unit covered this ground in 120 minutes. 

In a stable condition, Isla had suffered fractures to her spine, wrist, sternum and pelvis. Randal however, was placed in a medically-induced coma for three days.

“When I arrived at the RAH. I was taken aside by one of Randal’s surgeons and told he had a severe brain injury,” Karina said.

“They said he’d need to learn to walk, talk and eat again and that he’d never be the same.

“You think you’re prepared for it, but when you see your son with tubes hanging out of him — it’s stuff you see in movies.

“Randal had six broken ribs, fractures to his pelvis and spine, a laceration to his spleen and a haematoma near his right kidney."

Wooltana to Royal Adelaide Hospital

But they breed them tough in the bush and Randal was moved to a ward, five days after the accident. Randal was discharged from the Hampstead Rehabilitation Centre a month after the accident and returned to his job at Roxby Downs just five months later.

“During his time in the ICU he was the sickest patient in the whole of the Royal Adelaide Hospital,” Karina said.

“Without the Royal Flying Doctor Service, we know the outcome would have definitely been a lot different. It’s a service the outback can’t do without.”