Not every doctor has to get a horse out of the way before they can see a patient.

Then again, Sally Edmonds is not your average doctor.

Sally is a member of the medical team of the Royal Flying Doctor Service in Western Australia (RFDS (WA)). Horses on the runway are one of the myriad of challenges she faces in her day-to-day practice.

The RFDS (WA) is the world’s most far-flung medical service, with its teams of pilots, doctors and nurses transporting patients from every corner of this vast state to hospitals in Perth and other urban centres.

Sally was dealing with a road accident in the Pilbara, a remote region in the north-west of Australia and is the country’s mining hub, that had left a mother and daughter seriously injured.

“We needed to fly out to a station [an Australian farm] that was near to the scene of the accident. But before we could land and treat the patients the pilot had to check the runway first and clear the horses,” recalls Sally, who has been with the RFDS for more than two decades.

“It was one of the biggest challenges of my career. It was hot and humid (around 45 degrees) and we had to work quickly to get out before nightfall, as the landing strip had no lighting,” says Sally.

Meet Dr Sally Edmonds, a doctor with the RFDS – we help her save lives

While many medics would think twice about swapping the comfort of their surgical suites to treat patients on the side of a road, or thousands of metres in the air, Sally wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Some people have called it ‘intensive care in a phone box’,” laughs Sally. “There’s not a lot of room to move in an RFDS plane with your doctor, nurse, patient and equipment. But we have good equipment and we use it well and we are very adaptable.”

A relationship that ensures a world-class medical service

The support that the RFDS gets from Rio Tinto helps Sally and the team deliver their world-class service.

Rio Tinto is a founding member of the RFDS Aero Medical Fund and the single biggest non-government contributor to the service. The company sponsors the Life Flight Jet, which enables patients anywhere in Western Australia to be reached within approximately three hours.

“Rio Tinto’s support for the RFDS is amazing, especially the addition of the Rio Tinto Life Flight Jet to our fleet. It allows us to transport patients from really remote areas who require rapid transport to Perth in one hop – instead of stopping two or three times along the way.”

It all begins with a phone call

While the flying doctors get all the press – there was even a famous Australian TV series about their mid-air heroics – nothing would happen without the support they receive from the team in the Coordination Centre in Jandakot Airport, located in the southern suburbs of Perth.

Meet Sean Mager from the RFDS – we help him save lives

“We don’t get the attention received by our doctors and pilots – and it is well-deserved – but the call centre is the spokes in the wheel of the mechanism. Without them the machine would not work,” says coordination centre manager Sean Mager.

Sean and his team of co-ordinators take 76,000 medical calls a year.

Each time they get a call, they must mesh all the moving parts, ensuring planes and medical staff are available and fully briefed on the incident. They then shepherd the patient through to their destination hospital.

For Sean, the work of bringing first-rate medical care to people who would otherwise not have access to it is incredibly satisfying. “It’s a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces are ever changing in size and shape,” he says.

“Harder than flying a commercial airliner”

Veteran pilot Albin Unger is another of the RFDS (WA) team who relishes the challenge of bringing together doctors and patients in the outlying regions.

Meet Albin a pilot with the RFDS – we help him save lives

Indeed, he says operating an RFDS plane is harder than flying a commercial airliner.

“We land our planes on a wide variety of surfaces, from roads and mine sites through to gravel landing strips, during the day and night and often in very difficult weather conditions,” says Albin, who joined the RFDS after a career as a commercial pilot.

Today, Albin is the chief pilot for the RFDS (WA), and says that the work is the most satisfying of his career.

“Nothing compares to it,” says Albin. “You’re part of a service that many believe to be the best in the world and you are making a difference to people’s lives.”