New doctors take to the sky with RACQ LifeFlight Rescue Brisbane

Three doctors are UK graduates, three are Australian, one doctor hails from Belgium and the flight nurse is a Brisbane midwife from the Royal Flying Doctor Service.

All are interested in emergency medicine and the chance to offer intensive care in the air and out in the community.

“I chose LifeFlight because it’s the sort of job you can’t really do in many other places,” says Dr Simon Potter, “The chance to do a few more interesting cases in terms of primary trauma and respond to trauma by the side of the road, as well as see a bit more of Australia. I think I’m guilty of just seeing the eastern seaboard, much like everyone else so the chance to see these smaller inland towns and help out the community there and look after patients we might get from there.”

The RACQ LifeFlight Rescue helicopters each have a dedicated, expert aeromedical team made up of an RACQ LifeFlight doctor, pilot and aircrew officer and a Queensland Ambulance Service (QAS) paramedic.

“Working for LifeFlight you’re a small, core team that have to rely on each other and have a core set of skills to really help out who you can,” says Dr Carly Silvester, “I think within LifeFlight you’re really relying on yourself and your colleagues.”

LifeFlight recruits from amongst the most highly-skilled doctors around the world and within Australia, hand-picking the few who then undergo rigorous training to qualify to join become medical retrieval registrars on board the RACQ LifeFlight Rescue helicopters.

One of the most confronting teaching scenarios can be Helicopter Underwater Escape Training (HUET) at the LifeFlight Training Academy in Brisbane. The new recruits are put through a mock helicopter crash and must get themselves to safety.

LifeFlight Training Officer Shaun Gillott explains,  “It gives them the necessary skills to be able to respond appropriately in an emergency situation if one does arise. It can be challenging for some,” he says, “This time round everybody got through the training and embraced the requirements and ended up passing successfully.”

The LifeFlight doctors will also do rotations aboard the Brisbane-based QGAir rescue helicopter.  Last financial year, the aeromedical teams performed well over one thousand missions between them. The choppers are part of the Emergency Helicopter Network (EHN) and respond to jobs tasked by Retrieval Services Queensland which is managed by Queensland Health.

They never know what they could be sent to next – a seriously ill hospital patient needing transfer, a car accident scene, or a patient who must be winched to safety from a remote location. Winch training, to get the doctor from a hovering helicopter to the patient and then bring the patient aboard the helicopter, is a vital part of being a critical care doctor on board QGAir and RACQ LifeFlight aircraft.

“As part of the initial training for the new LifeFlight doctors is to get them a little bit more familiar, a little bit more comfortable with that environment, operating away from the hospital,” says Shaun Gillott, “They won’t have all the resources at hand at times and they need to adapt a little bit more to the challenges that are presented to them. This training is getting them ready for those situations.”

Being a LifeFlight retrieval registrar will be a big change from his time working in hospitals in England, New Zealand and the Gold Coast, for Dr Alex Bates.

“It’s very different to be out on the streets, seeing the patients when they’ve first had their injuries, which is a lot different to what I’m used to in the intensive care where they’ve been through a lot of steps before getting to me and also with the transport of patients from more rural places to the bigger places, often patients are a lot less worked on than I’d normally find them in the hospital, so that will be quite a different experience for me,” he explains.

To thrive in such unusual working conditions takes a special personality.  UK graduate Dr Emma Butterfield is taking time out of her Emergency Medicine training to be Lifeflight’s Roaming Registrar. She will work at aeromedical helicopter bases through-out Queensland, including RACQ LifeFlight Brisbane.

“I’m going to be taking the hospital to the patient. Taking all the equipment that we have in the hospital on a helicopter to wherever the patient needs us,” she says.

Medicine and travel are her passions.

“So I’m a UK Emergency Medicine trainee with a big interest in humanitarian medicine which led me to do some longer term placements in Mexico and Honduras and then responding to disasters, I’ve worked in Equador, worked on a small rescue boat in the central Mediterranean with a Spanish NGO picking up migrants.  Most recently I worked in Iraq for a couple of weeks during the offensive against ISIS doing humanitarian and trauma care.”

“I love my job,” she says.