Flying doctor from Belgium to Broken Hill

Meet Belgian doctor Christophe Duchatelet who touched down at the RFDS base in Broken Hill earlier this year where he’s one of a team of 10 Retrieval Medical Officers working across the Broken Hill and Dubbo bases, saving the lives of our region’s more remote residents and visitors.

While studying emergency medicine in his homeland, Dr Duchatelet first heard about the RFDS at a medical conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, from a doctor giving a talk about the more unique jobs he’d had during his career.

“At that point I was still in training in Belgium, but I always kept that [lecturer] in mind, so when I finished my training, he got me into contact with the supervisors at the flying doctors,” Dr Duchatelet told the Barrier Truth.

“Flying Doctors is quite a known and iconic organisation even in Belgium because of The Flying Doctors TV series back in the 1980s. My parents and their acquaintances all knew about it.

“With only 12 million people in Belgium, our rapid response vehicles are always close by to take a doctor and a nurse to the patient in case of emergency, so we have no need for aeromedical retrieval services,” he said.

Dr Duchatelet explained the contrast he’s experienced while working in the Broken Hill region compared to the medical system and environment in Belgium.

“The Royal Flying Doctors is so unique. The logistics – the desert environment, the weather, the sandy runways on remote properties, the vast distances we fly patients to major hospitals in extreme weather conditions – all make it very challenging, but I’ve always had an adventurous side so that’s what I was looking for,” he said.

“To take medicine out of the hospital and deliver it to the patient, has always been of interest to me. We do this in Belgium in rapid response vehicles – it’s called pre-hospital medicine – but the Flying Doctors take this to the next level. It’s kind of extreme-medicine,” he said. “It certainly takes you out of your comfort zone at times.”

As with rapid response vehicles in Belgium, RFDS aircraft are equipped with everything needed to stabilise and restore the vital functions of a patient, giving them the best possible opportunity to survive during a long flight to a hospital.

“For example, if a patient suffers a cardiac arrest by the time we get there, even if CPR is commenced by bystanders, there’s not a lot we can do because of the time taken to reach them,” Dr Duchatelet explained.

“But if the patient is still alive when we get there, we have quite a good chance to stabilise them, to do everything that needs to be done. We have a lot of equipment, a lot of medications, and have had a lot of training.

“It’s one thing to become a doctor, then study emergency medicine, critical care for ICU [intensive care unit], or anaesthetics, but then you must take your theoretical and practical knowledge and skills from the hospital into any environment you find yourself in,” he said.

“At the Flying Doctors, we’ve been extensively trained for a month in all kinds of situations – in-flight emergencies, aviation safety and so on – and then because we land in extreme settings, we have to also be aware of the very unique situations that can occur on the farms in this region and how to treat the most severe cases in that special setting,” explained Dr Duchatelet.

“In a hospital, you’re surrounded by people with a lot of skills to support you. Here, you are one doctor, with one flight nurse, and one pilot on your own together for multiple hours with a patient.”

When asked whether the RFDS TV series closely represented his role, Dr Duchatelet said, “actually, it’s a very good representation of daily work. A little bit dramatised, so there’s not that much romance,” he laughs, “and the medical cases are the most severe and unique cases one shall ever encounter in life, but otherwise it’s a very good portrayal.”

While on the topic of the most severe situation he’d experienced since starting work with the RFDS, Dr Duchatelet shared a case that put his skills to the test and highlighted why people driving around properties should consider wearing seatbelts.

“A young woman in her 20s was ejected from a car during a rollover on a property and was taken to a nearby community hospital by ambulance. We flew in. Although in a lot of pain, she appeared to not have any life-threatening injuries at first, but it soon became apparent that she was bleeding internally and had broken her pelvis, which can be deadly,” he explained. “If we weren’t able to give her a blood transfusion and get her to a major trauma centre in Adelaide, there’s a big chance she would have died.”

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