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OP-ED: Power of its People Keeps RFDS Soaring

Thursday 27 May 2021, The Examiner

Recently, I shone a light on the incredible work the Royal Flying Doctor Service has done in Tasmania in the past 60 years, since its first flight in September 1960.

We are fortunate in Tasmania to have services provided by the RFDS that are delivered by local doctors and other medical professionals whom we know and trust.

I wanted to take the opportunity this week to talk about some of the great people in our community who have dedicated their time, expertise and skill to providing rural and regional Australians with the same healthcare that's available to everyone else.

In 1974, well-known ear, nose and throat specialist Mr Gavin Earles and his wife, general practitioner Dr Margaret Roberts-Thomson, in their second year of residency, arrived for a three-month rotation at Wyndham Hospital in Western Australia, fulfilling a dream of Marg's to work with the RFDS.

By the very nature of the region, the hospital and RFDS clinic and airport were busy places, being managed by a limited number of doctors and other medical staff. Typically, they took it in turns to take the daily flights for their clinics on the various cattle stations and settlements, or patient retrievals.

According to Marg, they would fight over the chance to fly, being a unique opportunity in a special part of the world.

In the morning they would hold a clinic and do hospital rounds, possibly receiving radio call-ups from the stations, before following the schedule of station visits.

Along with the region came some unique challenges.

Women's and Indigenous health were issues exacerbated by the remoteness of the location.

Gavin recalls that he and Marg had little experience in obstetrics and one night, were called out to an Aboriginal woman in Halls Creek who had gone into labour.

Waking up the midwife for assistance, they were met with a grumpy response: "can't you handle a straightforward delivery?"

Gavin, Marg and the midwife all flew down to Halls Creek, and after being met with kerosene flares to mark the airstrip, retrieved the young mother and took her back to Wyndham, for what turned out to be an uneventful delivery, much to the chagrin of the midwife who felt she had been woken up for nothing,

Fortunately for Tasmania, Gavin pursued ENT as a speciality and the family moved to Launceston where they eventually settled.

However, their time in the Kimberley, working hand-in-hand with the RFDS remains a highlight of their careers.

Dr George Merridew, a now-retired Launceston-based anaesthetist and his wife, Sarah, a chartered accountant, have both dedicated a significant part of their expertise and time to the RFDS over the years.

After graduating in 1972 George served in the Royal Australian Air Force as a medical officer for four years and then undertook specialist anaesthesia training in Adelaide from 1979 to 1983.

After that, George worked in England, Hong Kong and the United States, accompanied by Sarah and their two small children.

The family returned to Australia in 1986 with George joining the Launceston General Hospital as a specialist anaesthetist, staying for 31 years.

Medical retrieval is another of George's specialties; it involves a transfer between hospitals of patients on life support.

His logistical and clinical expertise in this area began with the RAAF in 1975 organising patient transfers using mainly C130 Hercules aircraft and occasionally Iroquois helicopters or Caribous.

George helped develop the Tasmanian medical retrieval service, which began formally in 1995, acting as its medical director for five years from 1997.

With essential help from town planner Bob Graham and LGH then-CEO Professor Berni Einoder, George drove the approval of the Launceston General Hospital's helipad, which was commissioned in 2002 and is used about once or twice a month.

In 2004 George received the Chief of Defence Force's commendation for his work in the aftermath of the 2002 Bali bombing, prioritising transfer of victims as well as escorting ten of them to Darwin and another ten from Darwin to Perth.

George has been active in the Tasmanian RFDS for patient transfers and organisational governance since 1995.

He was president from 2009 to 2012 and was awarded life membership when he retired from the RFDS Tas board in 2017.

When asked what his greatest achievement has been, he said that it was getting Sarah to join the RFDS Board.

As treasurer, and Chair of the Finance Committee, her expertise, business acumen and governance knowledge were powerful forces behind the scenes to make RFDS Tas the robust organisation that it is today.

Earlier this year, Sarah was awarded the prestigious Australian Institute of Company Directors Gold medal for her outstanding work during her long career on many boards.

The RFDS is fortunate to work with these and other outstanding people right here in Launceston ensuring that medical care is never far away.

Rosemary Armitage, Independent Legislative Council Member for Launceston

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