“I think being in the aviation industry is a challenge. It’s a different environment, but there’s a lot of women out there who want to be in this environment but don’t think about it, or don’t think they can do it,” she said.
For more than 20 years, Michelle worked in the intensive care ward and emergency department at the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital. There wasn’t too much she didn’t experience while working there, including caring for some of the 2005 Bali bombing victims.
“It was great when they came back to visit,” she recalls.
“I love seeing patients come back that I never thought would leave the intensive care ward.”
Feeling like she’d seen it all, nine years ago Michelle left the hospital and began working for Retrieval Services Queensland (the central tasking agency for the aeromedical retrieval of patients around the state).
In 2013 Michelle went looking for a new challenge, landing a role as a flight nurse with LifeFlight (formerly known as CareFlight), the Queensland charity which operates Australia’s most diversified aeromedical service with both fixed and rotary wing fleets.
Her first job was on one of the longest aeromedical retrievals that has ever occurred – transferring a patient on ECMO from Japan to Brisbane on board LifeFlight’s Air Ambulance jet.
“The longest aeromedical retrieval of a patient on ECMO that has been published was from Germany to San Antonio. That took 11 hours and there were eight staff. We did close to that flight time with four staff,” said Michelle.
“It was one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had. I was working in a confined aircraft looking after a critically ill patient with minimal equipment and resources. I was really using my brain for what felt like the first time in a long time and it was great that the patient made it back to Australia and had a good outcome and was reunited with his family.”
It wasn’t just medical challenges that Michelle faced in her new role. One of her biggest tests was adapting to the male-dominated environment.
“I don’t think they knew what hit them when more women started working in the aeromedical industry.”
Michelle and her female colleagues soon warmed to their new working environment.
“The men learnt a lot as well. Hair removal strategies, some started watching the real housewives of Melbourne,” she laughs.
Michelle has been eager to pass her experiences on to others. So when she was asked to speak at the International Women’s Day Event at Archerfield Airport this year, she jumped at the opportunity.
“It was very exciting when I was doing the talk for Women’s Day. There were a lot of schools involved and I think a lot of girls are deterred and don’t feel like they’d be accepted into this environment,” she said.
“I have had this opportunity and I want to share it with girls and women who have not considered aviation as a career or have considered it but thought it was unattainable. If I can get here so can anyone else if they really want it.”
Michelle believes the industry is going through a transition, with more women taking up careers in the skies.
“I think there will be more women. You’re starting to hear a lot more women in air traffic control and there are a lot more women out there flying,” she said.
She has set her sights on inspiring more women to take their careers to new heights. Michelle will be a guest speaker at the third annual Queensland Women in Aviation/Aerospace Australia Summit later this month.
“I’ll be talking about the challenges that we face coming from a female-dominated environment to a male-dominated environment,” Michelle said.
Michelle has become an invaluable part of the LifeFlight team. In her role as Nurse Manager she is responsible for rostering, equipment and is also involved in educating new nurses.
LifeFlight Retrieval Medicine employs 24 skilled, and compassionate nurses at Brisbane and Townsville. They accompany doctors on a range of aeromedical flights on our Brisbane rescue helicopter and on our Air Ambulance jet service, caring for hundreds of patients every year.
“I am working out of my comfort zone and out of the familiar zone of a hospital. I also enjoy the fact that I go to rural hospitals and they appreciate what we do.
“They are so friendly and helpful and I have met many people over the last two years. The patients and their families are so grateful and it means so much to not only them but us as well.”
It’s not just female nurses she wants to encourage into the industry.
“You don’t see a lot of helicopter pilots who are women. There’s not a lot of engineers,” she said.
“I don’t know what’s holding them back, it’s just proving that we can do it.”
Michelle Black will be guest speaker at the Queensland Women in Aviation/Aerospace Australia Summit on May 23 at the Pullman Hotel, Brisbane.