Almost every week the Gold Coast-based doctor was called to help save the life of a severely injured driver who had crashed on the Burringbar Range in northern New South Wales, at the time the most dangerous 50 kilometres of highway in Australia.
This is how LifeFlight’s Chief Medical Officer was introduced to the charity formerly known as CareFlight.
Dr Al, as he’s affectionately known, has been pivotal in shaping the advanced medical care provided by LifeFlight’s medical team, including critical care doctors, intensive care nurses and QAS flight paramedics.
Back in the early 1980s, Dr Al was one of the only anaesthetists in the Gold Coast and Byron Bay area and one of a few doctors who volunteered their medical services to the community rescue helicopter service. He was well known in the region and was often called by ambulance staff to assist at the scene of serious accidents.
“At the time I would travel with my own rescue medical equipment in the car so I started my own advanced medical care service by default because I was asked to do it so often,” he 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.”
Soon Dr Al’s mode of transport became a helicopter as he took to the sky with LifeFlight to help patients who had been involved in a serious accident to get emergency medical treatment faster.
“It became obvious to us that having a rescue helicopter service to come to these towns and take patients to the hospital would be much better,” he said.
“At my call and request LifeFlight would for example fly the helicopter from the Carrara base to the Mullumbimby hospital where I had someone injured from a highway accident. I would then get onto the helicopter with the patient and fly to the Gold Coast, Tweed or Brisbane hospital and then I’d get a taxi back home. We did the best we could.”
In the early years, one single engine helicopter performed around 150 airlifts a year. Now LifeFlight doctors perform about 4,000 patient transfers or rescues each year across its fleet of helicopters and jets, as well as with other aero-medical rescue organisations.
“The first helicopter was very small, the patient’s head was always sitting between the doctor’s knees and feet – it was very, very cramped. We had a single pilot and an ambulance officer. However, we all enjoyed the work because we did everything as a medical crew. We did a lot of ocean water rescues in those early days and did a lot of training in lakes and waterfalls,” he said.
Fast forward 35 years and LifeFlight has expanded from five volunteers into a dedicated team including more than 130 doctors, nurses and paramedics on 12 rescue helicopters and three Air Ambulance jets.
“It’s been a very, very significant change over 35 years. We have gone from performing one mission every couple days with a volunteer doctor, to now having a LifeFlight doctor on almost all aircraft. We have now flown 44,000 critical rescue missions in 35 years. So that’s more than 10 to 12 call-outs a day throughout the state,” he said.
While the organisation has begun a new chapter under a new name, Dr Al who has been Chief Medical Officer for the last 14 years, is adamant LifeFlight’s main objective remains the same.
“Right from the very beginning it’s been about providing the best outcome for our patients who are often in a terrible situation and far away from emergency medical services,” he said.
“It’s about getting emergency medical services quickly to the patient, stabilising them at the scene and moving them quickly with sophisticated monitoring and medical services to a place where they can have definitive care.”
When Dr Al reflects on what has been a remarkable few decades he believes Queenslanders are in good hands with LifeFlight offering their airlift and rescue services along the coast from Cairns to the Gold Coast and west from bases in Mount Isa and Roma.
“In the 35 years LifeFlight has been operating, Queensland’s population has almost doubled. I must say it’s been an absolute pleasure to see us extend into rural and remote areas where obviously the need has always been great. It’s been an interesting trip of 35 years and it truly has flown by.”