By Doctor Chris Cheeseman, Medical Director – CareFlight Rapid Response Helicopter 

This year marks a quarter of a century since I embarked on my journey to become a doctor.

Little did I know that the aspirational twenty-something-year-old student at England’s University of Birmingham Medical School would one day move across the globe to become Medical Director on one of the world’s fastest doctor-staffed helicopter operations.

I began my surgical training in the United Kingdom where I specialised in neurosurgery, an area of medicine where I found myself struggling to find a passion for. Almost on a whim, I took on a role in the emergency department of the hospital I was completing my registrar training at, and instantly fell in love. I am thankful for that spur of the moment decision for launching my career into a fast-paced and challenging environment, helping people when they need it the most.

After a few years in the emergency department, I attended a recruitment event where I met an Australian aeromedical organisation that was setting up their base in Toowoomba, Queensland. They were searching for registrars to staff their new helicopter service. It was this opportunity that flew me to the other side of the Equator where I completed my registrar training up in the skies of Australia.

I leapt into aeromedicine because I find the challenge of looking after critically ill or injured patients in a prehospital environment rewarding. When you are working in the emergency department, by the time a patient has reached the hospital doors, you feel as if you are stepping into a narrative mid-way and the sense of involvement feels truncated; it has been some time since their incident, and they may have been treated and stabilised by various emergency services personnel already.

In aeromedicine, you are given the opportunity to fly straight to the scene of the incident and be there swiftly after a patient is ill or injured. I know that by being with a patient as soon as something goes topsy-turvy, I am giving them the best chance at survival and recovery.

I love the out-of-the-box thinking and unique challenges I face with each patient. One hour I can be treating a crush injury on a busy motorway, and later in the afternoon, I am in a paddock treating an injured worker while some horses look on. There is no standard cookie cutter approach and I have to use my resourcefulness to provide the best level of care for my patient.

Plus, of course, the office view from the helicopter window isn’t too shabby either!

From Toowoomba, it was a relatively simple hop, skip and a jump to New South Wales where I began my time at CareFlight as a retrieval specialist on the CareFlight Rapid Response Helicopter. As someone who is working in emergency and trauma care, I am constantly faced with many trialing scenarios where those moments are often the worst in someone’s life. While some days can be difficult, I know that I can depend on my colleagues for their support at the scene of an incident and back at the hangar when things are moving at a much less intense pace.

Working in aeromedicine, you join a unique environment where you create special bonds with people dedicated to their work, creating close-knit teams. All contributions and ideas are recognised and the sense of belonging is almost tangible in the air.

Apart from the individuals around me, what I think makes CareFlight stand out is its commitment to empowering the next generation of doctors. Our training programs for registrars in the prehospital environment are robust, practical and hyper-realistic, arming them with the necessary skills to save lives. I am incredibly lucky to have mentored many registrars during my time at CareFlight and see them progress into permanent roles as my colleagues.

In addition to my role as specialist doctor on the CareFlight Rapid Response Helicopter, I am also a medical retrieval consultant in the Northern Territory where many communities are living in third-world conditions. My role is to provide telehealth services to community clinics who are managing sick patients, including guiding local nurses and clinics with limited medical resources on how to best treat a patient. It is a stark juxtaposition to my role in Sydney where I have access to the latest innovations in medicine, but it is equally as rewarding.

Seven years after I joined the CareFlight family, I was appointed the Medical Director – CareFlight Rapid Response Helicopter during an incredibly tumultuous and exciting time for the organisation. 2020 was certainly an unprecedented year when we were battling COVID-19 and implementing new procedures for patient healthcare. Looking forward to this year, I am excited to work with the team to herald in new clinical innovations for our aeromedical crews.

One highlight that the crew and I are looking forward to the most in 2021 is the introduction of a new H145 helicopter to update our rapid response helicopter operations. This helicopter will be CareFlight’s latest iteration of aeromedical helicopter to go online in our 37-year history. It will be setting the standard in aeromedicine, making CareFlight one of the most advanced aeromedical services in the world. I look forward to working with my colleagues to upskill ourselves on this new helicopter, and becoming with its operations and becoming in-tune with it.

From a clinical perspective, bringing the H145 online means that we will be able to bring a hospital level of care to patients in a swifter and faster way. The new H145 brings the latest technology into our operating environment from cockpit, power, performance and crash worthiness to carbon fibre cabin construction all contributing to greater safety margins for all involved.