Doctors take flight in new aero-medical roles

LifeFlight Doctor Thomas Holland grew up in remote Borneo and says seeing countless childhood friends being airlifted by air ambulances to healthcare overseas was what inspired him to become a flight doctor years later.

Dr Holland is one of 24 new doctors from around the globe who will swap hospitals for helicopters this week when they take up positions as air retrieval registrars on LifeFlight aircraft across Queensland.

A rigorous training program at LifeFlight’s Training Academy in the past fortnight has prepared the new recruits for life on the frontline of emergency medicine.

The doctors were thrown in the deep end today – literally – during Helicopter Underwater Escape Training (HUET) just days after being suspended several metres in the air during live winch training.

They have also retrieved crash test dummies from mock car crash scenarios and practiced roadside surgeries to ensure they are familiar with all situations encountered out in the field.

Dr Holland said his childhood in Borneo ‘planted the seed’ that inspired his LifeFlight role.

“After I started my career in Emergency Medicine, the appeal of air-medical retrievals was more the professional and intellectual challenges it entailed,” he said.

Another professional challenge for Dr Holland came in 2011 when he worked as a junior receiving doctor at Brisbane Airport treating patients affected by Cyclone Yasi in Cairns. He did the same in Vanuatu in 2015 assessing Australian citizens following Cyclone Pam. 

“These experiences were useful insights for me into multi-agency disaster response,” he said.

“Working for LifeFlight is a great chance to work in the emergency medicine field with a respected organisation.”

With no previous air-medical experience, Thomas says his biggest challenge will be working in isolation, both in a physical sense and away from the abundant resources of a hospital system.

“Emergency Departments are chaotic places sometimes, but the setting is always familiar,” he said.

“Needing to be adaptable to the changing environment with every task will be a big point of difference.”

Dr Holland will be based at LifeFlight’s Brisbane rescue base from next week.

"Every day in the life of our doctors is completely different and brings new challenges,” LifeFlight’s Director of Training and Education, Dr Jeff Hooper said.

“One day they could be winched down the side of a cliff, the next they’re at the scene of a car crash, or winching an injured patient off the back of a cruise ship 150km out to sea.

“The weeks of training prepare them for almost every scenario they might encounter on the choppers.”

The role of a LifeFlight doctor is a highly sought after position in the medical field with doctors travelling from all over the globe to save Queensland lives.

“Doctors join us for six month rotations and this intake has seen doctors come all the way from the UK, Sweden, Brazil, Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands to work at aeromedical bases around Queensland,” Dr Hooper said.

LifeFlight doctors not only fly on board LifeFlight helicopters and jets, but on other air-medical operators around the state including the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS), CQ Rescue, Capricorn Rescue and QGAir.

Last financial year, LifeFlight doctors across the network treated a total of 4,700 patients locally and abroad, a significant increase of more than 700 additional patients in 2015-16.

“Our doctors are busier than ever, providing clinical coverage to 10 bases with reach to anywhere in Queensland and interstate or internationally as required,” Dr Hooper said.

“We’re proud to say that LifeFlight is the only community helicopter provider in Queensland which provides its own doctors on board its own aircraft.”

The new intake of doctors will be stationed at aero-medical bases around Queensland including

Brisbane, the Sunshine Coast, Toowoomba, Townsville, Mackay, Cairns and Rockhampton.

“The recent training week really put the doctors through their paces. We’re pleased to say they all passed with flying colours,” Dr Hooper said.