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Remote area nursing: That time I saved a horse’s life

14 Aug 2023

In the 1980s, when a horse suffered a cut to the neck in Tarcoola, SA, new-to-town remote area nurse Ros Jinks performed a successful “backyard surgery” to save its life. Her story evokes the golden years of SA’s railways and the unusual duties RANs were (and still are) called upon to perform.

Sil­via — stock​.adobe​.com.

I was work­ing in the tiny town of Tar­coola in South Aus­tralia, pop­u­la­tion around 150. The year would have been 1982, so a while ago now! 

Tar­coola was a rail­way town specif­i­cal­ly to ser­vice the Trans Aus­tralian Rail­way line, and trains which went through. They used it to refu­el goods trains, inspect trains, and maybe also top up water for pas­sen­ger trains of Indi­an Pacif­ic and Ghan.

The town con­sist­ed of about 25 or so rail­way hous­es (most­ly in rows), a school and a few hous­es for teach­ers and prin­ci­pal, also a small pub with accom­mo­da­tion (although it did not offer pub­lic accom­mo­da­tion while I was there) and a small church. There may have been one or two pri­vate­ly owned houses.

The clos­est oth­er med­ical ser­vice and hos­pi­tal was in Port Augus­ta, about eight hours by train, or just under two hours by plane (no reg­u­lar ser­vice, pri­vate planes only), and RFDS would gen­er­al­ly taxi up to the back fence of the hospital.

The hos­pi­tal was more of a clin­ic ser­vic­ing most­ly the town but also the few sur­round­ing pas­toral (sheep) sta­tions on occasions.

The Trans Aus­tralian Railway.

With the pas­sen­ger trains trav­el­ling through town, occa­sion­al­ly the nurse was request­ed to attend to sick passenger/​s. The trains didn’t for­mal­ly stop – no pas­sen­gers were allowed to dis­em­bark unless they were get­ting on/​off there, but went through late at night (at 11:30pm to Alice Springs or 3 – 4am in oth­er directions).

It was sup­port­ed by the RFDS with med­ical clin­ics twice per month or for emer­gency evac­u­a­tions (most­ly to Port Augus­ta, although on one occa­sion a sick child I removed from the Ghan was flown direct­ly to Ade­laide) and gen­er­al­ly staffed by two RNs. 

The days of rou­tine surgery and births in the hos­pi­tal had long ceased by the time I worked there. The nurs­es were appoint­ed by the Bush Church Aid Soci­ety so there was an expec­ta­tion that the nurse/​s would also have some involve­ment in run­ning church-relat­ed activ­i­ties, such as Sun­day School and Kids Club. The vis­it­ing min­is­ter attend­ed from Port Augus­ta rea­son­ably reg­u­lar­ly so the nurse/​s also facil­i­tat­ed church ser­vices in the small church.

Tar­coola church in 2020.

Back­yards were gen­er­ous and gal­vanised iron fences divid­ed the yards. A few of the fam­i­lies had hors­es and a cou­ple kept one or two in the back­yard from time to time. One fam­i­ly had recent­ly acquired a horse from one of the adjoin­ing sheep sta­tions and was attempt­ing to break it in. They were train­ing it with a hal­ter around the head and like­ly a mouth-bit. I learned this after the event. The dis­cus­sion was that a horse in the adjoining/​nearby yard was call­ing and this horse put its head over the fence to respond then pan­icked when it couldn’t lift its head, result­ing in a large gash along and under the jaw line. 

I remem­ber the sit­u­a­tion clear­ly and that I’d only been there about a week. A car screeched to a halt and the door­bell rang almost simul­ta­ne­ous­ly. I prompt­ly answered the door to see a lady and her son stand­ing there look­ing con­cerned but no sign of phys­i­cal injury or dis­tress. She mum­bled some­thing like I don’t know if you can do any­thing, but Sis­ter Helen used to” (Helen being the recent pre­vi­ous RN), and my horse has cut an artery or some­thing in its neck”.

So, I instant­ly changed into some old­er clothes, gath­ered a cou­ple of things (med­ical equip­ment) and went with her.

Anoth­er man in town had already been called to attend; he was more expe­ri­enced with hors­es and he took one look and told them to go get the sis­ter”. There were about four men in atten­dance and one had his hand over the gash, slow­ing down the bleed­ing. I fig­ured that if I didn’t do any­thing the horse was going to die so I had noth­ing to lose!

So – the surgery”. It was very dif­fi­cult to access the neck area of the horse to see what I was doing prop­er­ly so it was decid­ed to get the horse on the ground. I think by this stage I had man­aged to suc­cess­ful­ly locate the lac­er­at­ed artery and clamp off the bleed­ing (by almost blind­ly pok­ing artery for­ceps into the wound) so it was a mat­ter of over-sewing said blood ves­sel and sewing the wound.

A large tarp had been obtained and a light on a very long exten­sion cord from the house, as it was quite dark by this time. The men man­aged to pull the horse down to the ground and sat on her while I did my surgery’. After the sutur­ing was com­plet­ed the men allowed the horse to stand again. She was giv­en a course of intra­mus­cu­lar antibi­ot­ic and lived to tell the tale.

Sad­ly, it was some weeks lat­er that she man­aged to break a leg (knocked on a water trough) and had to be euthanised. (I was on a short break home in Syd­ney at the time so received a phone call after the event. If I was there maybe I would have tried to plas­ter it?)

Wilge­na Hotel, Tar­coola in 2020.

I also spent some time fur­ther along the line in Cook – which is sim­i­lar­ly sit­u­at­ed mid­way between Port Augus­ta and Kal­go­or­lie, but there’s no pas­toral sta­tions in the mid­dle of the Nullar­bor Plain. It had about 20 hous­es all in a row with a school set back and a cou­ple of teach­ers’ hous­es near­by, and was a three-hour flight from Port Augus­ta, overnight on the train, with twice month­ly clin­ics from RFDS.

Con­crete sleep­ers were pro­gress­ing so the small sid­ing towns of three to four hous­es were being dis­pensed with less main­te­nance required on tracks, but those adja­cent to Cook were still
in place, so med­ical care was extend­ed to the small pop­u­la­tions (about three hous­es) in those places as well as (train) travellers.

Few peo­ple vis­it­ed the towns by car apart from vis­it­ing trades­peo­ple for things like Tele­com, as most peo­ple arrived by train. With advances in tech­nol­o­gy, there was no longer a require­ment for per­ma­nent Tele­com work­ers.
One of their jobs was to do weath­er obser­va­tions and report to the Bureau of Mete­o­rol­o­gy three hourly around the clock except for mid­night. This job was absorbed by the hos­pi­tal Sis­ters” (RNs).

Because the Indi­an Pacif­ic train stopped for about a half hour for refu­elling and water­ing, and also crew change (WA/SA), at respectable times (8am and 7pm local SA time), a sou­venir shop was estab­lished and oper­at­ed from a small car­a­van adja­cent to the train sta­tion. Mon­ey raised helped sup­port the town, hos­pi­tal and RFDS, so of course it was anoth­er com­mu­ni­ty job for the hos­pi­tal staff to be involved with. The town is now most­ly gone but remains an impor­tant refu­el and crew change stop so only a cou­ple live there on a per­ma­nent basis.

Hope that gives a bit of insight into work­ing as a RAN in the past days of rail­way towns in South Aus­tralia. Some of the nurs­es also got involved with vet­eri­nary care on a slight­ly more for­mal basis, attend­ing to ster­il­i­sa­tion of cats (and dogs?) on occa­sions. I recall the occa­sion­al vet­eri­nary work on injured/​sick ani­mals dur­ing my time there, as the clos­est vet was of course in Port Augusta.

Read more from CRANAplus Mem­bers Ms M Press and Ms R Caine in this arti­cle on Con­verse Cul­ture Shock – Unac­cus­tomed to the famil­iar.