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Health at great heights

30 Aug 2021

Third-year nursing student Sarah Horn took to the air during her clinical placement at RFDS’ Meekatharra base. Despite the challenges of working at altitude and in intense heat, learning cultural and clinical lessons and supporting airborne patients through their highly stressful ordeal made it “one of the greatest experiences” of her life.

I am a third-year nurs­ing stu­dent study­ing at Edith Cow­an Uni­ver­si­ty in Perth. Since head­ing down the nurs­ing path­way I always imag­ined myself work­ing in remote com­mu­ni­ties as

I have a pas­sion for Abo­rig­i­nal health as well as crit­i­cal care and men­tal health.

When my uni­ver­si­ty put out an expres­sion of inter­est to com­plete a four-week place­ment with the Roy­al Fly­ing Doc­tors Ser­vice (RFDS) based out of Meekathar­ra, a small town in the mid­dle of West­ern Aus­tralia with a pop­u­la­tion of 700 peo­ple, of course, I jumped at it.

On the long eight-hour dri­ve there, as the soil got red­der and trees turned into shrubs, I was won­der­ing what I had got­ten myself into.

How­ev­er, those feel­ings quick­ly dis­ap­peared when I was wel­comed with open arms into the Meekathar­ra com­mu­ni­ty and RFDS family.

My first few days of fly­ing were phys­i­cal­ly exhaust­ing, and I was con­cerned I would not be able to cope with the rest of the placement.

I hadn’t ful­ly appre­ci­at­ed the effect work­ing at alti­tude and in extreme­ly high tem­per­a­tures would have on me.

How­ev­er, after some point­ers from the crew, accli­ma­tis­ing myself and increas­ing my water intake the shifts got easier.

A usu­al day involved my pre­cep­tor and I being on call from 6am until 10am. If we weren’t tasked by then we would go into the base and do checks, or train­ing until a job came in. The Meekathar­ra base only has two PC-12 air­craft which are sin­gle-engine tur­bo­prop aero­planes. In the back, there are two stretch­ers, three seats, and not much room to move! Most morn­ing flights were nurse only which meant occa­sion­al­ly we took three patients if one could sit, but most flights were either one or two stretchered patients.

I thor­ough­ly enjoyed the vari­ety of patients I saw and not know­ing what each day would bring. My favourite jobs were to very remote com­mu­ni­ties includ­ing War­bur­ton and Giles.

We were always greet­ed with such warmth and excite­ment and I loved hear­ing the sto­ries and expe­ri­ences of the peo­ple liv­ing there. I learnt so much about Abo­rig­i­nal cul­ture and the impor­tance of prac­tis­ing in a cul­tur­al­ly-safe way.

I also gained a huge appre­ci­a­tion for the Remote Area Nurs­es, who often care for very sick peo­ple with lim­it­ed resources and may have to wait hours for the patient to be transferred.

It was very dif­fer­ent from what I had expe­ri­enced so far in met­ro­pol­i­tan hos­pi­tals, and a huge eye-opener.

I feel incred­i­bly lucky to have been able to work with such pas­sion­ate and high­ly skilled nurs­es, doc­tors and pilots. Giv­en the com­plex­i­ties of fly­ing in a small air­craft I quick­ly learnt from the crew how impor­tant it was to be pre­pared for a patient to dete­ri­o­rate, even when they are hemo­dy­nam­i­cal­ly sta­ble and look well, such as hav­ing med­ica­tions ready, equip­ment checked, and a clear plan to ensure the best outcomes.

I also learnt the sig­nif­i­cance of com­mu­ni­cat­ing with the patients about what was hap­pen­ing, where they were being trans­ferred to, and pro­vid­ing reas­sur­ance. For many of our patients, this was already one of the worst days of their life, and now they were being flown hun­dreds of kilo­me­tres away from their home in a tiny plane with total strangers and were under­stand­ably scared. When you can alle­vi­ate a bit of that fear and pro­vide them with the care they need, it’s a real­ly good feeling.

This place­ment, assist­ed by a CRANAplus spon­sored Under­grad­u­ate Remote Place­ment Schol­ar­ship, has been one of the great­est expe­ri­ences of my life and I wish it didn’t have to end. Not only have I gained invalu­able nurs­ing skills, but I’ve also made friends for life, seen places I nev­er could have imag­ined and con­firmed that rur­al nurs­ing is where I belong.

Find out more about the under­grad­u­ate remote place­ment schol­ar­ships offered by CRANAplus.