Primary retrieval nursing with the Royal Flying Doctor Service

By Belinda Cipriano, Communications and Marketing Officer, Rural Health West 

Source: APNA Primary Times Winter 2023 (Volume 23 Issue 1)

Spending much of her childhood and teenage years in hospital inspired Alise Tilbury to take on a career in the medical world. 

‘I spent a significant amount of time in hospital and became fascinated by the medical world,’ Alise says. ‘There were a few exceptional nurses that cared for me and since then I have endeavoured to be a nurse that made the patient’s overall experience the best it could be; I know firsthand what a difference this can make. 

‘Having only attended just over 2 years of high school, I felt that I missed out on so much of life and one of the things that got me through that time were my elaborate plans for adventure and travel that I told myself I was going to do once I was “better”. 

‘After completing my nursing degree, I went travelling around the world. When I returned home, I decided to work rurally so I could continue to explore and see what my own country had to offer while saving to travel overseas again. I worked in rural hospitals in different places around Western Australia, including the Kimberly. I fell in love with rural work: the lifestyle, the adventures and the people. I repeated this cycle of working, saving and travelling for many years.’ 

In 2019, Alise was the inaugural recipient of the Savanna Addis Scholarship, a partnership between the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) and Rural Health West to help nurses aspiring to work for the RFDS to complete the necessary training. It is a requirement for RFDS flight nurses to have dual registration as a registered nurse and midwife. 

The scholarship helped Alise gain her Master of Midwifery Practice from Edith Cowan University, Perth, in 2021 and she has now started her dream role as a primary retrieval nurse with the RFDS.  

‘Without the scholarship’s financial support, I do not think I would have been able to achieve my dream, which was to work for the RFDS,’ she says. ‘In addition to this, I’ve realised I absolutely love midwifery and I am extremely passionate about women’s health.’  

The RFDS provides emergency and primary health care services 24 hours a day, every day of the year to people living, working and travelling through rural and remote areas of Australia. Alise is part of a team based in Port Hedland, WA, that services a vast catchment area. 

‘We respond to a wide range of medical emergencies’ Alise says. ‘A typical day involves a 10- or 12-hour shift where I’m on call. My shift begins when a call comes through, and then the length of the shift depends on where we go and how many stops we make.’  

‘When a call comes through, we receive a pre-flight assessment, which helps us prepare. Then we fly out and we retrieve the patient(s) from wherever they are, and we usually bring them back to Port Hedland, or to Perth, depending on the level of care they need. Quite often we’ll spend the night in Perth in a hotel.’ 

‘For the more critical patients, a doctor will come, but 70% of the time, it will be just me and a pilot flying out to retrieve people, so my role is very autonomous. This was pretty daunting at first! It’s very different to working in the hospital system where, if something goes wrong, you can press a button and have a team of people come running. I’ve gotten used to it now, and the pilots are very helpful. It’s good! It forces me to use my critical thinking. And I’m still part of a team, it’s just a different type of teamwork. We have a group chat. I can always text questions to the group, and I’ll instantly get a response. We’re very tight-knit, due to the nature of our work.’ 

‘In this job, you have to be prepared for the unexpected, not just every day, but sometimes by the minute. The best way I can describe working for the RFDS is that you are practising in an exceptionally organised yet chaotic workplace, and there will almost always be a change of plan. It really can be an exciting job with a lot of adrenaline, and then you have days where it is very calm and chilled.’ 

Alise says they often retrieve patients from rural hospitals if they need transporting to larger medical centres, and, working in the Pilbara, there are a lot of mine site injuries and illnesses that require retrievals.  

She tells the story of a mass-casualty car accident involving 7 seriously injured patients in a remote part of WA. ‘Someone had found them, and had taken them to an outback station where they could get phone reception to call the RFDS. It was very dramatic, it felt like a scene from a movie. We landed in the dark, and worked with head-torches while we tried to stabilise them. I remember someone telling me to watch out for the black snake that was nearby, and there was a litter of puppies that kept jumping up on me while I tried to treat people. It was very chaotic. And by the end of the shift, my uniform was orange from working in the dirt!’ 

Alise says her work has helped her understand the geographical and socioeconomic challenges faced by people living and working rurally. 

‘Working rurally has given me depth not only professionally but as a person,’ she says. ‘I regularly witness the disparity and health inequality for our First Nations people and have become passionate about Aboriginal health. I feel like I can make a significant impact on people’s lives, particularly our First Nations people. Even when I returned to Perth, my passion for rural work and life has always pulled me back.’ 

‘I have met some lifelong friends, had some of the most privileged experiences, and continue to get out there and see this beautiful country – thank you Rural Health West and RFDS.’ 

The Savanna Addis Scholarship, funded by Rural Health West at $10,000 a year and supported by the RFDS for an initial 10-year period, is available to registered nurses with critical care experience who do not have the necessary midwifery qualifications required to work for the RFDS. 

The scholarship is named after former Telethon child, Savanna Addis, who lived with Alagille Syndrome, a genetic disorder affecting the liver and heart. Savanna became a dedicated fundraiser for RFDS after being transported by the service following a life-threatening fall while living in Kununurra. 

The next round of scholarship applications opens on 1 July 2023. 



This article has been adapted from an article that was published by Rural Health West Matters Magazine in December 2022. Some additional interview content has been added by Primary Times writer Melanie Irwin. 

The Australian Primary Health Care Nurses Association acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of country throughout Australia and their connections to land, sea and community. We pay our respects to elders past and present and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples today.

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