Dr Katherine Townend is a doctor with a difference – helping to look after patients in the sky. She describes what it’s like being an aeromedical specialist, and why the flying doctor service is so important. Words Anabel Darby Photos Supplied.
Not only is Dr Katherine Townend an anaesthetist and intensive care hospital doctor, she’s also an aeromedical retrieval specialist. Based in Christchurch, she has been associated with the New Zealand Flying Doctor (NZFD) service for over 10 years, flying with and coordinating missions. As an ICU doctor, she first became involved during her training.
“I really enjoyed the challenges of working in the air ambulance environment – no two jobs are the same,” she says.
“The planes are like flying intensive care units. There is immense opportunity to help our rural and remote communities by bringing high-end treatment to them. The crew look after patients of all ages who need specialist care or a higher level of clinical support,” Katherine explains.
Now medical director at GCH Aviation, Katherine oversees the paramedic operations for air rescue helicopters in Christchurch, Greymouth and Nelson, as well as the AeroMed Pacific Jet retrieval service that transfers patients from anywhere in the Pacific.
“I’m on call pretty much 24/7 for advice and support to those air rescue crews,” she says.
Katherine’s colleague at Canterbury District Health Board (CDHB) and fellow ICU doctor, Dr Neil Davidson is clinical lead of the Canterbury Air Retrieval Service and NZFD operations specialist for the CDHB.
“The rescue helicopters are better known, being more visible, but the flying doctor service is equally important, giving intensive specialist aeromedical care to critically ill patients until they reach hospital,” Neil says.
On top of acute work, the NZFD transfers national spinal injury patients to Christchurch and Burwood Hospitals, as well as moving neurosurgical and paediatric patients around the country.
GCH Aviation, in collaboration with CDHB, operates the time-critical, 24-hour service out of a purpose-built facility at Christchurch Airport, and another in Nelson.
Challenges in the air
The aeromedical work Katherine and Neil do requires particular skills and knowledge.
“Caring for patients in the air requires the ability to juggle time-critical decisions with the complexity of flying in a very tight environment,” Katherine says.
“You need a lot of confidence to work alone, make decisions ’on the fly’ so to speak! You need to understand how the patient’s injuries or disease can be affected at altitude and be able to reduce or manage that risk.
“The level of fatigue is higher in the air, with two hours working in a plane or helicopter being considered the equivalent of three hours working on the ground.”
All staff have their challenging medical or memorable cases.
“Sometimes you remember the patient or the family, sometimes it’s because you know that despite everything, this will be a sad outcome for all involved. We see trauma and injuries that are difficult to forget,” Katherine says.
“But we also have the good outcomes – the patients who come back to thank us once they have been discharged – they’re the most fantastic reminder of why we do what we do.”
One such patient, five-year-old Rita McCormack has drawn a special picture of the flying doctor planes that helped her as a baby. Now her drawing is depicted on a fundraising T-shirt for the New Zealand Flying Doctor Trust (NZFDT), produced by sustainable Kiwi fashion company, Untouched World.
Before she was born, Rita’s parents Belinda and Lindon knew she had a heart condition and would need neonatal cardiac care at Auckland’s Starship Hospital. So, well before her due date, they flew to Auckland to get prepared.
But Rita had other ideas, and arrived the very next day, via caesarean section. She was treated by the team at Starship Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and when well enough, the flying doctor team transferred the family back home, taking Rita to Christchurch Hospital for further monitoring.
Lindon remembers the trip well. “It seemed rather overwhelming with wee baby Rita in the incubator, but the crew were so reassuring and cared for us as a family, every step of the way.”
Despite the early challenges, Rita is now healthy and loving school. Through the Trust, she has bonded with another patient, nine-year old Grace Byrne who also defied the odds after a major car accident. Together, they are helping support the T-shirt fundraiser launched this month.
The Byrne family’s car crashed off the road at 100km/h, and rolled six times across a paddock in Marlborough. Dad, Steven had suffered a sudden seizure behind the wheel. Grace was in a critical condition with a fractured skull, and she needed to be airlifted to Wellington, and then on to Starship Hospital in Auckland. Grace’s parents Steven and Dianne, and brother Evan all needed urgent treatment too, and were flown to different hospitals around the country for the care they needed.
The accident occurred when the Byrnes were driving to Evan’s gymnastics championship in Blenheim. By coincidence, Dr Katherine Townend’s daughter Lucy was competing at that event. Several weeks later, at the next competition, Katherine recalls seeing Steven and Evan there.
“He came over to introduce himself and asked me to pass on a massive thank you to the air ambulance team. At this stage, Grace was still at Starship waiting to come back. I found out she was ready to be discharged so, instead of having to wait until the following Tuesday when the trip was scheduled, I was able to find out that the flying doctors had a slot free that day and could go straight to Auckland to collect her. We have the pictures to prove what an amazing homecoming that was,” she says.
“It was the New Zealand Flying Doctor service that brought our family back together again, when they flew Grace home,” Steven says. “Grace was so well looked after on her flight back… It meant so much to come back as a family after what we’d been through.
“We’ve only got one children’s hospital in New Zealand, making the Flying Doctors a big necessity. And it’s not easy to get over the Cook Strait by ambulance. The only way is by air. The service means a lot to a lot of people,” he says.
Contributing to the cause
Before she became the high-profile founder of Untouched World, Peri Drysdale was a nurse. She has always had an interest in supporting patient care; her company makes and donates hundreds of merino wool beanies to Christchurch Hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), the oncology ward and other neonatal units.
“When I was invited along to a New Zealand Flying Doctor Trust open day, I realised what a wonderful service it was and asked, ‘How can we help you?’ From there, we have pledged to work together to lift the profile of the service and assist with fundraising initiatives like the T-shirt,” Peri says.
Being a mother of three daughters, Katherine finds that “those transfers involving babies and children do stay with you, and make you realise how important this service is,” she says. “Meeting up with patients like Grace, Rita and their parents is such a privilege, and makes it all worthwhile.”