LifeFlight doctor helped save Cairns shark attack victim

Dr Turner has served as an officer of the Royal Australian Air Force for 23 years and was only three weeks into his job with LifeFlight Retrieval Medicine – assigned to the Cairns-based QG Air helicopter – when the critically ill fisherman arrived at Cardwell Jetty suffering severe blood loss from traumatic leg wounds.

The helicopter, with Alan on board as the doctor, was sent to meet with the local paramedic who first treated the patient at the port. When they landed on a nearby field, Alan remembers the severity of Glenn’s injuries were reminiscent of the injured troops Alan used to treat in Afghanistan, many of whom sadly failed to survive their serious and life-threatening injuries. 

“I went into the back of the ambulance to see the patient for the first time and I was struck by just how grey and pale the young guy was. He was very unwell,” said Alan. 

“Based on the patient’s vital signs I would estimate he lost more than two litres of blood within the first two minutes of the shark attack before the tourniquet was applied by his friends on the fishing boat.”

The quick thinking of Glenn’s friend, former US Navy master diver Rick Bettua, had been instrumental stopping him from bleeding out on the boat, using a makeshift tourniquet to compress Glenn’s leg.

But Alan’s first critical task in the vital minutes when he first saw the patient on land was to provide a blood transfusion in the back of the ambulance.

As soon as Alan performed the blood transfusion he saw an instant improvement. Colour rushed to Glenn’s cheeks and he regained some level of consciousness. 

“To get blood to someone who is so remote was a major factor in his survival,” said Dr Turner. 

“As a LifeFlight doctor we make a difference by either expediting the movement of critically sick patients to definitive care or bringing hospital-grade care to them in an emergency situation.

“Despite the fact that, in the end, the surgeons had to amputate his leg in order to save his life, it is really great to see Glenn responding so well and to see that he is back with his family and getting on with life.”

LifeFlight, the leading Queensland charity which is a world leader in aeromedical care, recruits and trains around 130 doctors every year, supplying medical staff to all Queensland-based emergency medical retrieval services. LifeFlight doctors are aboard not only RACQ LifeFlight Rescue helicopters, but also rescue aircraft based at Cairns, Townsville, Toowoomba, Mackay, Rockhampton, Sunshine Coast, Roma and Brisbane.

At any hour of the day, there is an average of two LifeFlight Doctors in the air around Queensland, saving lives. LifeFlight doctors treat and transport more than 10 patients every day, caring for almost 5000 people per year.

Unlike most doctors, Alan Turner’s career has been a mix of working in Australian hospitals, war zones, and now, in the back of rescue helicopters. 

Bundaberg born and bred, flying has always been a huge passion for Alan and a career within the field of aeromedical care seemed like a perfect blending of the two.

“I joined the Air Force with the hope of becoming a pilot when I was 17years old but, I was unsuccessful on the  Pilot Training Program,” he said. “I convinced the Air Force to send me back to university to study medicine and I graduated from the University of Newcastle in 2005.”

Deployed in August 2009 Flight Lieutenant Alan Turner spent more than nine months working in the midst of the so-called “War on Terror” in Afghanistan, airlifting injured Aussie troops out of Kandahar Air Field and volunteering in a Canadian multi-national trauma ward. 

It was a confronting and eye-opening experience for the Australian doctor who had rarely seen gunshot or shrapnel wounds in the hospitals back home, let alone the other disastrous effects of war which were far-reaching and indiscriminate in their victims.

“These young guys were being taken straight from the battlefield and put onto our hospital beds,” he said. 

“We were seeing these men within the first hour of suffering extensive injuries. I was a junior doctor back then so the adrenaline was certainly pumping.”

As the leader of the trauma team, Alan and his team worked around the clock attending to injured Australian and international troops, as well as coordinating aeromedical retrievals for those who needed evacuation.  

“Being in the Air Force, that’s what we do. We have amazing aircraft such as the C-17 Globemaster and the C130 Hercules that allow us to perform long-range airlifts and bring injured Aussies home,” Dr Turner said.

While he may be humble in recounting his military record, it was a dedicated service that has not gone unnoticed by his country. Dr Turner was awarded a Commendation for Distinguished Service on the Australia Day Honours List in 2011 for displaying extensive and lifesaving trauma and resuscitation skills, as well as improving aeromedical evacuation procedures for injured Australians out of Kandahar Air Field.

“I was lucky to be there at a time when I could be heavily involved in the multi-national hospital. It was an incredible experience both personally and professionally and the award was unexpected and humbling,” remembers Alan.

After completing a second Afghanistan tour in 2014, Alan took advantage of a new LifeFlight Retrieval Medicine and Australian Defence Force initiative. Alan wanted to increase his experience on rotary-wing aircraft and joined LifeFlight Retrieval Medicine on secondment as an Emergency Medicine registrar Doctor in February this year.  

It has been a no less adrenaline-charged and inspiring role for Alan who is based in Cairns at the QG Air Base until July.

“I always knew I wanted to work for LifeFlight and get exposure to different types of injuries and medical conditions. I was keen to work in Cairns as I knew it was an area serviced mainly by helicopters,” he said.

 “I’ve been lucky to be involved in some really interesting cases – it’s been everything I’ve hoped for and more. I’ve been able to learn so much about aeromedical and retrieval medicine and make a real difference in saving people’s lives.”  

The role of a LifeFlight doctor is a highly sought after position, with new recruits employed twice a year locally and from across the globe including from the United Kingdom, Sweden, Brazil, and the Netherlands.

Alan’s medical adventures are far from over. He recently applied for his next secondment – a twelve-month stint working as a doctor with the Australian Antarctic Division, a ‘sea change’ of a slightly different kind.