40 years on the frontline: LifeFlight’s longest serving doctor marks a milestone

Once found in war torn East Timor, now at the helm of Queensland’s leading aeromedical service, LifeFlight’s Chief Medical Officer and newly appointed Chairman of the LifeFlight Retrieval Medicine Board, Dr. Allan MacKillop has dedicated his life to saving others.

The pioneering doctor, known to his colleagues as ‘Dr Al’, says it all began more than 40 years ago with frequent phone calls through the night to attend the scene of harrowing car accidents.

“At the time I would travel with my own rescue medical equipment, in my own car, so I started an advanced medical care service by default because I was asked to do it so often,” Dr. MacKillop said.

“It got to the point where the ambulance gave me a flashing red light, on a magnet, to put on the roof of the car, which was very unusual in those days.”

Dr Al’s mode of transport soon became a helicopter, as he took to the skies with LifeFlight (then known as CareFlight Qld) to help patients who had been seriously injured and needed urgent emergency treatment on-site and in hospital, more quickly than could be achieved by road transport.

“It became obvious that having a rescue helicopter service to come to these parts of the Gold Coast, especially remote country roads, to take seriously injured patients to the hospital would be much better,” he said.

Working alongside Dr Al at the time, was a Queensland Water Police Officer, who was volunteering as an aircrewman – now LifeFlight Australia Chief Executive Officer Ashley van de Velde OAM.

“There are plenty of people who are around today, who are very grateful to Dr. Al,” Mr van de Velde said.

“He’s humble, always got on with the job, everyone just knew how good he was at his job.”

By 1996, Dr. Al had added another means of transport to his rap sheet, having joined the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF).

“I was a part of the RAAF Specialist Reserve, where I was predominately involved in military aeromedical retrieval training and operations, and in deployed field hospitals as an Anaesthetist,” Dr MacKillop said.

Humanitarian aid missions to medevac Bali bombing victims and supporting the Indian Ocean tsunami response, were some of the high-profile cases Dr. Al lent his skills to.

“I was always supported by highly skilled and dedicated medics, nurses and physicians. The ability to mount aeromedical retrievals of our Australian Defence Force members from Europe and the Middle East is impressive due to the distances and time involved,” Dr MacKillop said.

With 2021 bringing change for many people around the world, LifeFlight’s Chief Medical Officer thought it was also time for him to make some alterations.

“After having spent two and half decades with the RAAF, it was time for me to retire as their Clinical Director of Emergency and Aeromedical Services,” Dr Mackillop said.

“While my work at LifeFlight never ceased, throughout my time with the RAAF, I’ve recently taken over as the Chairman of LifeFlight Retrieval Medicine, where I will be primarily focussed on ensuring resources are adequate and our personnel are supported to provide excellent medical services to LifeFlight.”

“It is a privilege and I am grateful to the past Chair, Hon. Jim Elder and other board members for their support.”

Both the RAAF and LifeFlight are world leading in their professionalism and technical expertise and align closely by having the ability to combine critical care training with sophisticated aviation resources.

“Many of our clinical, aviation and engineering personnel have a military background which allows LifeFlight to draw on knowledge one can only gain from having been in the field,” Dr Mackillop said.

Knowledge, which will continue to be invaluable to LifeFlight as it adapts to the ever-changing landscape of aeromedical retrieval.

“Dr. Al was instrumental in securing the current contract LifeFlight has with Queensland Health which puts the organisation as the largest civil employer for prehospital aeromedical care in the world,” Mr van de Velde said.

“In LifeFlight’s first year of operation on the Gold Coast, we transported 30 patients, in 2020 we came to the aid of more than 6,000 people, both nationally and abroad.”

“Our fleet has expanded to 10 rotary wing aircraft and 6 fixed wing, all of which can be medically configured and ready to respond at a moment’s notice.”

Accomplishments aside, Dr. Al is so much more than a Chief Medical Officer to the LifeFlight team.

“He’s like the family doctor for the company; always helping employees out where he can, always ready to lend an ear,” Mr van de Velde said.

A colourful career and the accolades to accompany it, Dr. Al says it’s the people he’s worked with along the way who have made his career what it is today.

“It is the people who make an organisation successful and long-lasting,” Dr MacKillop said.