What it takes to join the RFDS medical team

Date published

02 Apr 2019

Ever wondered what it takes to be part of the RFDS medical team? Here are a first hand accounts from Senior Flight Nurse Jo Smallshaw and Dr Simon Clarkson.

RFDS Western Ops ambassador Melva Stone, flight nurse Jo Smallshaw with RFDS board member Dr Ann Ward at BIA


In 2002, Jo Smallshaw sat in the back of an ambulance on the airstrip at Derby Airport, in Western Australia's far north-west. 

Then a nurse at the local hospital, Jo was waiting to pick up a patient who had been bitten by a venomous snake. 

She was a long way from home - having swapped the big city lights of Sydney for a job with a travelling nursing agency to experience life in regional Australia. 

As she sat there, waiting to receive the returning patient, the wings of the Royal Flying Doctor Service aircraft came into view on the horizon. That moment, and the interactions with the RFDS that followed, would light a fire within her. 

Before she'd even got back to Derby Hospital, Jo knew: "This is just something that I have to do." 

It was the first day of a long journey. Jo's career with the RFDS as a flight nurse didn't come overnight. It took five years of training in emergency nursing and a midwifery degree before she applied, successfully, to work with the RFDS. 

Now, 16 years after that first encounter with the RFDS at Derby Airport, Jo is a senior base nurse in Broome. 

"It's very different to working in a hospital," she said. 

"You work with limited resources and it can be a challenging environment with noise, vibration, altitude hypoxia to consider, and a confined space - this is especially tricky when you're six foot tall like me!"

Jo said regular simulation training across all aspects of clinical expertise was absolutely crucial in order to be prepared to respond to the unpredictable. 

"You do build confidence over time and you find yourself passing on bits of knowledge you've picked up over the years to the new staff who are coming through," she said.

"It is a very dynamic space to work in where you get different patients, you travel to different places every day and sometimes on different modes of transport. You deal with everything and anything."

Adapting to change is something Jo's very familiar with. Born and bred in Hong Kong, she completed her nursing training in London before making her way to WA, where she met her husband (who she says is her biggest support). 

In her time with the RFDS, Jo has experienced the amalgamation of the Derby base with Broome and as senior base nurse, went from working in a team of five to one twice that size. 

"This year, we welcomed the arrival of our world-first for aero medical service PC-24 jet 'Kimberley' to the Broome base, so it's not just a job that you go into and 'that's it' for the next 10 years," she said. 

"There have been big changes and there will be changes to come, and to me, that's just really exciting." 


Dr Simon Clarkson attributes his passion for helping people in need from his experience as a first-aid volunteer during his youth. 

Graduating from medical school in 2009, Simon accrued five years of experience in trauma, intensive care, emergency care anaesthetics, neonatal and obstetrics while working at Fremantle, Royal Perth and King Edward Memorial Hospitals. 

Equipped with an extensive skill-set and a desire to work in the aero medical arena, he successfully applied to the RFDS in 2013. 

Simon says his role as an RFDS doctor is incredibly diverse. Beyond his experience on the frontline of medical emergencies, Simon provides vital support to the RFDS medical teams across the state as they tackle any number of emergencies on the ground. 

"You learn to develop a sixth sense of what you hear over the phone to paint a mental picture of what's going on," he said. 

"On any given day, I'm on the phone with nurses, doctors, paramedics and mine site medics who are spread across all 2.5 million square kilometres of the state and have to extract information from them to make an assessment. 

"Experience gives you that. Based on the information you've been given, you then have to make decisions about urgency to attend, preparations for in-flight medical treatment, organise hospital admission and liaise with the receiving hospital about the patient's condition." 

Simon, who also instructs medical professionals on Advanced Paediatric Life Support (APLS) and the Western Trauma Course (WTC), said there are plenty of opportunities to expand your skill-set and grow professionally with the RFDS. 

This includes Helicopter Underwater Emergency Training (HUET), Advanced Life Support(ALS) training, ultrasound upskilling and a weekly in-house education program which entails a video conference with medical staff tuning in from all bases across the state. 

"As our five bases are spread far and wide across WA, to be able to have the conference where we present and review cases is very valuable and beneficial," he said. 

"We actively share knowledge with experts from across WA's medical industry and health services which is very beneficial in maintaining best practice and importantly delivering optimal outcomes for our patients."