Friday, September 21, 2012

The Dr Tabubil Files: The Royal Flying Doctor Service

My sister, the estimable Dr Tabubil, is spending ten weeks on a rural clinical rotation in Cloncurry, a small pastoral town in the Queensland Outback.  It's a fantastic place, and together we have collaborated on a series of guest posts  all about living and working in the Red Centre.  This post is written by me - Tabubilgirl.  Enjoy!

Dear Dr Tabubil

I just learned something  fantastic.  Did you know that the Royal Flying Doctor Service started out right where you are in Cloncurry? 
I am so going full-out fan-girl on you right now, for being there.  You lucky doctor, you!

-A highly excited Tabubilgirl.

I find it very hard to write sensibly about the flying doctor, so - in advance - I ask you to please excuse all of the hyperbole that has crept into this post.  (Except where it is simply an accurate and measured description of an organization that is, by all objective measures, entirely deserving of everything I throw at it.)
            The Flying Doctor is, at its roots, an air ambulance for a very big continent.  Australia is a massive country.  Across the interior of it, human habitation is scarce, and  scattered.  We have cattle stations larger in area than many european countries, and in all of that space, there might be no more than a couple of dozen working jackaroos (cowboys) and a family or two in a homestead somewhere along a creek.  For most of Australia's settled history (and for all of the history before that) when you were sick, you were sick where you were, and you lived or died on your own out in the loneliness.  All the medicine you had was the knowledge of hygiene or basic nursing in your own head.  
In the nineteen-teens and twenties, a Reverend John Flynn (Flynn of the Inland, he is better known today - the label taken from a famous 1932 hagiography by writer Ion Idriess ) worked the territories as a superintendent for the Australian Inland Mission.  Out there, he found himself horrified by the things that he saw. Women and babies died in childbirth in remote, water-less huts.  Children died of treatable diseases.  Men grew crooked when broken limbs weren't set - or were set wrong.  He  told  often the story of a ten year old child, who had pulled his sick mother  - in a wooden BOX for the god's sakes - for ten days across arid desert to get her to somewhere that might have medical help, dragging his baby brothers and sisters along with him.

Flynn changed all that. 

In 1928, Flynn recognized that two hot new inventions, the radio and the airplane, had the potential to do something entirely unprecedented in Australia. He set up a network of radios across the bush, and brought in a fleet of spanking new airplanes to act as an air ambulance service across the inland territories.  
            It was a rough and ready sort of set up.  The radios were primitive, pedal-powered sets  and the planes were boxy little biplanes that landed on rough airstrips hacked out of the scrub.  But it made a difference.
            How it made a difference. 
            The airplanes got people to doctors and the radios opened up the world to the people who lived out there all alone with the great big horizon. Particularly for the women, who spent much of their lives alone in the bush with a pack of kids while their husbands were out for weeks at a time with the cattle,  the radio was a world-opener.  The radio gave them companionship,  and in time, it led to the School of the Air, a radio-correspondence school (still going strong, although making more use of the internet today than the radio) for children on remote stations, who up till then, hadn't had much in the way of education except irregularly delivered correspondence courses, or what education their entirely-too-busy mother could provide when not providing everything else.
The Reverend Flynn wasn't particularly keen on a genuinely inclusive mandate for the Flying Doctor - in its early days he circulated opinions about Australia's aboriginal population that shocked even the other leaders of the Inland Mission (which is not particularly remembered today for its history of Christian attitudes toward the non-white Australians under its dominion.  So that's saying something.)
            However, the Flying Doctor grew past its founders and and throve. Today, doctors fly out of 22 bases across Australia, flying circuits through the stations and townships of the outback, running regular clinics and inoculations, and getting people to hospitals when they need it.  Their airplanes land in paddocks, on country roads, and on dry riverbeds. Their right of passage is absolute. 
            Flying Doctor airplanes have set the standard for rural carriers all over the world - they are equipped with  specially sprung undercarriages for landing on every sort of terrain, their cabins are equipped with advanced pressurization capacity (they can limit the pressurization to 2000 feet to protect patients with heart and brain injuries) and their engines have extended air range for long-haul outback flights.
            The Royal Flying Doctor Service is one of Australia's greatest civil and logistical achievements, and I will take on anyone who chooses to argue otherwise.  With water-pistols at ten paces, if you please. When Australians see the RFDS, we see a net of lifelines - strings of compassion and communication stretching out over our continent.  It symbolizes the best of what we aspire to - an absolute, unselfish cooperation and an appreciation for our fellow men and women. 
            I ran into a flying doctor airplane at an airshow a couple of years back.  We were permitted to look through the plane, and when we'd prodded and gawked our fill, the pilots closed the airshow with a fly-past over the airstrip.  

Here's a flying doctor plane, on its way out to the airstrip. 

And the interior of the same plane - as good a set-up as in any ER, but with seat-belts and altitude controls! 

It was a good way to end a show, with a look at the best human face of aviation, something way beyond acrobatics and big engines and formation flying. When you look at the RFDS, you think - we do all right.  And when you see one of their planes throttling low, fifty feet above the airstrip, you get lumps in your throat and just about stand up and salute.

No comments:

Post a Comment