Terminally ill patients are being given the chance to travel down memory lane, thanks to
RFDS (Royal Flying Doctor Service) Victoria and the generosity of donors.

Trips to a favourite beach or the family farm are some of the journeys that have been
facilitated by Flying Doctor Memory Lane since its launch earlier this year.

“We’re giving people with a terminal illness or in palliative care a chance to reconnect
with some part of their life that perhaps they thought they would never get to see again,”
RFDS Victoria spokesperson Jonathan Green said.

“When people are close to the end of their life, their wishes are often very simple. They
want to feel the breeze of the sea or return to their home to be surrounded by loved
ones or their pets. Memory Lane safely and comfortably transports people to that
special destination.

“We recently transported a woman who lived in the suburbs of Melbourne that spent a
lot of her youth at the beach in Torquay. All she wanted to do was to go back to the
beach.

“Our team took her down, and her friends met her there. She stood in the sand for a bit
and they all had fish and chips together. She came back to Melbourne with the biggest
smile and said it was the greatest day she’d had in ages. A few weeks later, she passed
away.”

Completely donor-funded and staffed by medically trained health care professionals
who volunteer their time, Flying Doctor Memory Lane is one of the many lesser-known
services of RFDS Victoria.

"There’s a wonderful history with RFDS, but it’s only a fraction of what we do now as an
organisation,” Mr Green said.

“The new TV show on Channel 7 is fantastic for branding but reinforces that stereotype
that we are only there for emergencies. While we still have that element, we’ve evolved
into a multi-faceted health care provider with a wide range of primary health services.”

Owing to its geographical size, RFDS Victoria has just one plane — but more than 100
road ambulances.

“So, we do have a plane and we do have ambulances, but most of what we do is called
non-emergency patient transport,” Mr Green said.

“Non-emergency means that you need medical transport but it’s not necessarily time critical. There are a lot of transports where someone needs medical assistance or the
space of an ambulance but are stable – this might involve someone needing to transfer
from one medical facility to another or perhaps from their home to hospital.

“By providing this non-emergency transport service, we can free up paramedic
ambulances and rescue helicopters to be there in those times of emergency.”

Last year, RFDS Victoria provided more than 2000 confirmed or suspected COVID
patient transports. It is part of an official contract with Ambulance Victoria that enabled
patients to receive the care they needed in a safe and secure environment, while
ensuring that paramedic ambulances could remain on the road for critical care.

“Part of that contract with Ambulance Victoria involves supporting planes that are
returning back to Australia," Mr Green said.

“Most people returning from overseas will be directly transported to hotel quarantine but
if anyone needs medical assistance, we will pick them up and take them to hospital first
before going to quarantine.”

Most recently, those patient transfers included evacuation flights out of Afghanistan,
resulting in staff supporting people who had been shot at or assaulted in their efforts to
leave; who had witnessed deadly explosions or received shrapnel wounds; who had
scared and traumatised children; and people who were still receiving calls and texts
from loved ones back in Afghanistan who are trying to find a way to also get to
Australia.

The Royal Flying Doctor Service has been saving lives in rural and remote Australia for
more than 90 years.

Services are delivered by six operating sections – Central Operations, Queensland
Section, South Eastern Section (NSW and ACT), Tasmania Section, Victoria Section
and Western Operations.

As well as Flying Doctor Memory Lane, donations fund RFDS Victoria’s range of
primary health services including dental, optical, mental health, speech pathology,
telehealth and Rural Women’s GP.

“If you take the premise of what RFDS is based on — that people in remote areas didn’t
have easy access to health care so the flying doctor would pick them up and take them
to hospital — we look at it and say the same thing still applies but in different ways,” Mr
Green said.

“We still take people to health care, but also take health care to people. For example,
our dental service includes trucks that are fully equipped inside with a dental suite. We
drive into towns, set up for four-to-six weeks, treat patients, then drive on to the next
town.

“This is an important service as many small towns are too small to support a dentist, so
people are faced with travelling hundreds of kilometers to get to the nearest clinic –
many of which have long waitlists."

Another initiative, the Rural Women’s GP service, enables Victorian communities the
choice of gender when it comes to their local doctor.

“A lot of small towns will only have one GP because that’s all the town needs or can
support, and more often than not that GP is a man,” Mr Green said.

“If you are a younger female and you’ve got a couple of issues and you have to go to
the doctor, are you comfortable chatting to a 60-year-old man who has probably known
you since you were born?

“A 16-year-old girl is probably more inclined to try to get herself to the next major
regional city or simply not go at all.

“So, we have a program where a group of female GPs have a rotation, and they drive
between a number of towns in North West Victoria. They’ll set up there for a week and
people know they’re coming, and they can book to see the female GP.

“Interestingly, the female GPs up there say they would almost get as many men as
women who want to see them. Sometimes you’ve got an older farmer who’s perhaps
struggling with mental health issues and doesn’t want to chat to the male GP.”

There are also travelling wellbeing clinicians to provide early-intervention support for
people living in rural towns.

“They will drive into towns, set up for a week or so and provide consultations in person,”
Mr Green said.

“There’s often no town psychologist because these towns aren’t big enough. Even if
there was, most people wouldn’t want to see them because if it’s a small town, they
don’t want to bump into them at the supermarket at the weekend because they’re going
to feel awkward.

“So, people can get a face-to-face appointment in their own community. You're not
asking someone to drive an hour and a half each way. The clinicians return on a regular
basis, so people get continuity of care.

“We’re on a mission to let people know that we do these things. It can be a challenge
because the emergency plane has got that wow factor.”

RFDS Victoria has been a member of Ai Group for six years.

“We find the Australian Industry Group very helpful and useful from an industrial
relations, employee relations and health and safety perspective. We’ve worked closely
with Ai Group on our enterprise bargaining agreement issues and a variety of other matters that occur for a health organisation during a pandemic. It’s been really helpful to be able to hit the phones and get a response straight away and if we do need more thorough or considered work and opinion, we’re able to access that, as well. Through Ai Group's website, we utilise templates, different procedures and contract letters. We also find the information sessions that we’ve attended to be really useful." — Cherie Scifo, General Manager, People & Culture, RFDS Victoria

Wendy Larter

Wendy Larter is the Senior Content Writer at Ai Group. She is a former journalist with more than 20 years’ experience as a reporter, features writer, contributor and sub-editor for newspapers and magazines including The Courier-Mail in Brisbane and Metro, News of the World, The Times and Elle in the UK.