Wednesday, 15 February 2017

My Newest Favourite Thing: The Royal Flying Doctor Service

The Royal Flying Doctors Base and Bruce Langford Visitor Centre at Broken Hill is a place of information and inspiration. The film showing in the theatre combines tales of remarkable heroism with the history of the service, tributes to the doctors, pilots and flight nurses who work for the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS), along with the outback folk who rely upon their skills and expertise in everyday situations.

The mission of the RFDS is to provide excellence in aeromedical and primary health care across Australia. The RDFS is one of the largest and most comprehensive aeromedical organisations in the world. Using the latest in aviation, medical and communications technology, they deliver extensive primary health care and 24-hour emergency services to those who live, work and travel throughout Australia.

The base is the headquarters of the South East section, covering all of NSW, Tasmania and Victoria. All of the administration, medical, and aviation teams pertaining to this area are centred here along with the tourist facility. While the RFDS is best known for emergency retrieval work, they also provide GP clinics, telehealth, dental care, mental health services, rural women’s health services, aboriginal health services, health promotion and education, patient transport services by air and road, as well as research into rural health issues.

The friendly tour guides are happy to supply statistics and figures, including the fact that the RFDS national fleet has 66 aircraft, 23 aero-bases, and 48 road patient vehicles, and that they had over 290,000 patient contacts in 2015. I think their favourite facts, however, are that in the last year they flew the equivalent distance of seven times to the moon and back (26,157,502 kilometres), and that the RFDS helps someone every two minutes of every day.

Viewing the planes from the platform in the hangar brings everything a little closer. In Qld, NSW, Victoria and Tasmania, the planes used are the King Air B350 C and the B200 C. Each of these specially modified aircraft is like a flying emergency room. As well as carrying medical equipment like resuscitation devices and neonatal incubators, RFDS aircraft are also fitted with an additional battery to provide medical power, a medical oxygen and suction system, and a special communications system for interaction between the pilot and the medical staff in the cabin.

As well as the medical knowledge of the RFDS personnel, the organisation also relies on the expertise of the pilots who have superior flying skills, dealing with extreme weather storms and rudimentary airstrips without lighting, which have to be cleared of wildlife before landing. The official handbook explains, “The presence of holes, cracks and ruts will degrade the aircraft's performance and handling and will increase the possibility of structural damage. The smoothness of the surface can be tested by driving a fully laden 3 tonne vehicle along the runway at a speed of 80kph. If this is accomplished without discomfort to the occupants, the surface can be considered satisfactory.

The Mantle of Safety Museum contains examples of early communication, medical and aviation equipment as well as a plethora of pictures and information to explain the history and progress of this phenomenal organisation, beginning with the founder, the Very Reverend Doctor John Flynn, OBE, DD. Born in 1880 at Moliagul, Victoria, he worked as a country teacher and missionary before training for the Ministry of the Presbyterian Church. Following his ordination in 1911, he took up an appointment to the Smith of Dunesk Mission in the Northern Flinders Rangers, S.A.

The Very Reverend Doctor John Flynn
Within a year Flynn was commissioned to survey Northern Australia for the Presbyterian Church. This led to the establishment in 1912 of the Australian Inland Mission, of which he became founding superintendent. Opening under the motto ‘For Christ and the Continent’, the mission’s objective was to administer to the spiritual, social and medical needs of outback people. As he worked in rural and remote Australia setting up hostels and bush hospitals for pastoralists, miners, road workers, railwaymen and other settlers, he witnessed first-hand the rigours of outback life.

Increasingly ‘Flynn of the Inland’ as he was known became aware of the need for an aerial medical service, and developed a vision to provide a ‘mantle of safety’ for the people of the bush. His revolutionary scheme was realised in 1928 when Flying Doctor operations began at Cloncurry, Queensland. The growth of the RFDS in those early days was rapid and soon reached right across the vast continent. By the late 1930s there were sections of the RFDS operating in Victoria, Western Australia, South Australia, New South Wales and Northern Territory as well as Queensland. By the 1950s the RFDS was acknowledged by former Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies as,

“perhaps the single greatest contribution to the effective settlement of the far distant country that we have witnessed in our time.”

After his death in 1951, John Flynn was succeeded by The Very Reverend Dr Fred McKay, AC, CMG, OBE, ME, BD, Hon. LLD, who himself became an outback legend. In 1934 as a student Presbyterian minister, McKay was planning to pursue theological studies abroad, until a visit from John Flynn changed the course of his life. Flynn’s vivid descriptions of the Australian Inland Mission’s work persuaded McKay to become an itinerant parole padre. 

Ordained in 1935, McKay spent the next six years on the track in Western Queensland becoming Flynn’s principal assistant. His parish, extending from Innamincka to Cape York, included Cloncurry, nerve centre of the newly established Flying Doctor Service. After serving as a RAAF chaplain in WWII and a brief ministry in Brisbane, McKay succeeded Flynn as Superintendent of the AIM in 1951, and retained the post for 23 years. He died in 2000 aged 92.

The Flying Doctor radio network was used also for education. In 1934, the inventor of the pedal wireless, Alfred Traeger, spoke of constructing ‘a suitable set for the children of the interior at very reasonable cost.’ (Fred McKay, who was also a keen historian, wrote the book, Traeger the Pedal Radio Man, which was published in 1955). The first to take up the idea of using two-way radio for the education of isolated children was Adelaide Meithke, a South Australian educationalist and friend of John Flynn.

In 1944 while travelling to Alice Springs as a councillor of the Flying Doctor Service, she noticed the shyness of the outback children. Seized by the idea of ‘bridging the lonely distance’ she set up, as a branch of the Flying Doctor Service, the world’s first School of the Air. It began operating from Alice Springs in 1950 and was officially opened the following year.

The experiment was repeated elsewhere and soon children once solely dependent on correspondence lessons could now speak directly to teachers and interact with other children. By the end of the 1950s there were already three more Schools of the Air operating in Australia: at Broken Hill; Port Augusta, SA; and Meekatharra, WA. Since then the schools have proliferated across the continent.

Over the years the school has bridged the isolation of many outback children but, thanks to recent advances in communications, no longer depends on the Flying Doctor network. In 2003 radio communication was replaced by a satellite system enabling students to talk to teachers using computers. This has allowed them to experience visual learning while improving their technical skills.

On 10 August 1955 the Flying Doctor Service added the prefix Royal to its name. This honour was granted by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in recognition of the Service’s outstanding contribution to the Outback. The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh witnessed the Service’s work first-hand during their visit to Australia in 1954. On this, the first visit by a British monarch, the royal couple spent two months touring the continent, visiting 58 centres from Cairns to Fremantle. On Thursday 18 March 1954, the Queen and Duke arrived at Broken Hill, the 45th stop on their tour, and visited the Flying Doctor base, where the Queen spoke over the radio network, saying 

“I have heard so much of the Flying Doctor Service, and of the security and comfort it brings to the Outback. I would like to take this opportunity of paying a tribute to its founder, the Reverend John Flynn, and for expressing my admiration for those, past and present, who have contributed to its splendid work.”

The Flying Dentist also became involved in this organisation. Until relatively recently, professional dental services were beyond the reach of most people in the Outback. Here dentists were even scarcer than doctors, and people accepted dental problems as a fact of life, to be endured with the aid of oil of cloves or a mouthful of rum. When pain became unbearable, a sufferer would have a tooth extracted with a pair of pliers or treat an abscess with battery acid; there was no thought of ‘conservative’ dentistry.

In 1960 the NSW Flying Dentist Service was established to bring relief to the people of the far west, a co-operative arrangement whereby the Department of Health provided a dentist while the RDFS Base at Broken Hill supplied transport and clinics where the dentist could operate. Initially children were targeted, with the dentist making systematic visits to schools and townships in the area.

During his first visit to Wilcannia, Dr Bob Burns, the first flying dentist, filled 120 teeth in a day. Not surprisingly, his leg gave out after working the treadle drill for hours and the Flying Doctor pilot, Vic Cover, had to take over; until his leg, too, failed and he ended the day down on his knees, working the treadle with his hands. Later the dentist’s drilling equipment was powered by a 12-volt battery, but this also had a limited life and sometimes it had to be replaced with car batteries.

In collaboration with the NSW Government, the dental service has expanded, now providing regular clinics and services to remote communities. As well as treating cavities and disease, dentists educate patients on oral hygiene and preventative dental care.

The Mantle of Safety Museum has an interesting display on the development of the RFDS logo, which has transformed eight times over the last eighty years to reflect the changing nature of the Service and to modernise its look. It was originally black and white featuring a Maltese cross (to represent medicine), wings (aviation), zig zag flashes (radio) and the map of Australia (although Tasmania was omitted). Over time medicine came to be represented by the caduceus and aviation by eagle’s wings. The design incorporated a propeller and a laurel wreath, Tasmania was added to the map, and words were placed around the symbol.

The modern logo (most recently updated in 2009) acknowledges historical associations with earlier logos by retaining the traditional symbols of medicine (the caduceus), aviation (wings) and the map of Australia. The wings have been softened to better express the sense of caring and protective mantle of safety, compared to the militaristic association of the earlier eagle’s wings. The design incorporates the national colours of red, white and blue, and the contemporary font has an increased weighting between the symbol and the words.

In 1994 the Reserve Bank of Australia included the image of the Reverend John Flynn on the $20 note. Other images on the note include the fabric bi-plane ‘Victory’, which flew the first Flying Doctor mission from Cloncurry, QLD on 17 May 1928, a camel signifying the five camels Flynn purchased in 1913 so that his Patrol Padres could complete their mission work throughout Central Australia, and the pedal radio invented by Alfred Traeger in 1929 enabling the people of the outback to call on the Flying Doctor for assistance. The body chart depicted was created by Sister Lucy Garlick in 1951 and is still used today. It enables patients to describe the region and intensity of their pain or injury during a remote telehealth consultation.

The RFDS has been recognised as Australia’s most reputable charity for the last five years running, and is registered with and regulated by the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission. Naturally, none of this medical or aviation equipment is cheap, and the organisation relies on donations to keep it flying. The Bruce Langford Visitor Centre has a variety of merchandise on sale, the proceeds of which all go to the RFDS.

For the past six decades, the Broken Hill Women’s Auxiliary Members combine hundreds of kilos of fruit, flour, spices and eggs into 2,000 Christmas puddings. These puddings are in such demand that they sell out each year while raising many thousands of dollars for the RFDS. There are also delightful calico tea-towels commemorating this feat of home economics, and last year the Women’s Auxiliary raised over $75,000.

RDFS Christmas puddings
Other community groups and benefactors include the RideWest Charity Bike Ride, which covers 1,237km over seven days as fundraisers cycle from Brisbane to Longreach. The terrain they traverse typifies outback Queensland, and all the corporations and individuals ride to give something back to the heart of Australia’s community culture. Further awareness of the organisation comes from the sale of DVDs of The Flying Doctors TV programme (all 221 episodes), which is particularly popular in the UK and Netherlands, leading to large charitable donations. As stranded tourists and ‘grey nomad’ travellers become an increasing subject of the RFDS rescue missions, it is fitting that they make these contributions.

This is now my newest favourite charity and I urge you to donate if and when you can to keep these secular angels in the sky.

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