Care in the air with Dr Ruth

Hills Independent
"With CareFlight it’s pre-hospital, there could be 1000 different things going on, you could be dealing with bad weather, the media, a crowd or working at a challenging location which makes giving the necessary care more demanding on your skills.” Dr Ruth Parsell

By Lorna Gordon

It’s not unusual to see CareFlight helicopters in our area, flying to people in need of emergency assistance going to places it is difficult for ambulances to get to, or when time is of the absolute essence. I’m sure, like me, many of you hope that the person they are assisting has a good outcome, and perhaps you might say a prayer for them too.

CareFlight was set up in 1986 with just one helicopter and one doctor on duty. Since those humble beginnings it has expanded nationally and become one of Australia’s most trusted and reputable charities. Each member of the team who fly out on CareFlight’s fixed or rotary wing aircraft are specifically trained to deal with the situations they face; pilots know how to navigate difficult terrain or landing areas and doctors have been trained in trauma response. The events they are called out to are very varied and can be anything from car accidents to paediatric health problems.

Dr Ruth with her family.

This year saw the newest addition to the CareFlight team, a H145 helicopter, the first aeromedical aircraft of its kind in Australia, came on board as the Mounties Care CareFlight Helicopter. This new aircraft can fly up to 250 km/hr and can reach patients within an average of 18 minutes from tasking and has a reach as far away as the Central Coast or Blue Mountains from the Westmead base.

Dr Ruth Parsell, Deputy Medical Directorof the rapid response service is one of the specialist doctors on call for CareFlight and is no stranger to dealing with emergencies. She began her work in the medical area as a paramedic, which is where she met her husband, Brian, who is also a paramedic. While she enjoyed her job, she had always set her dreams higher. At school she hadn’t got the scores she needed in her exams to gain entry to study medicine at that time, so put that dream to the side. When she was working as a paramedic the pathways to enter a medical degree opened up and Ruth decided to upgrade her medical knowledge and train to be a doctor.

“After I joined the paramedics the entry requirements to study medicine changed, you could start a science-based degree then switch to study medicine. I knew some very inspiring doctors at Liverpool Hospital and asked them questions about their jobs and decided to pursue a degree with the intention of specialising in emergency medicine when I finished.”

Ruth studied for five years at the University of Newcastle and then continued on to do her three-year doctor training and focused on her chosen field.

“After your initial three years you chose your speciality, you can leave to become a G.P. or move on to specialist training. I chose to study emergency medicine, in Australia it’s still a young speciality, only becoming seen as a speciality in the 1980’s. We are the ‘jack of all trades’ as when people come into the emergency room we have to be prepared for anything. Unlike most specialities we do extra training on anaesthetics as we may have to put people to sleep and attach them to a ventilator before they are moved on to the specific ward for their needs.”

Her work as a paramedic helped prepare Ruth for the world of emergency and trauma medicine, both as a CareFlight doctor and as her other role as a doctor in the emergency departments of Westmead and the Nepean hospitals.

“When I work in hospitals, I have a better understanding of the challenges faced by paramedics and the issues that they have to deal with. In my position with CareFlight my paramedic training has helped me get the patient  ‘packed up’ on a stretcher and ready to go in the Mounties Care CareFlight Helicopter for transportation.”

While she administers the best care and attention to each patient in her care, Ruth told me that the two jobs are very different.

“In hospitals the patient comes to you in a bed, with perfect lighting and temperature and a team you are used to working with. With CareFlight it’s pre-hospital, there could be 1000 different things going on, you could be dealing with bad weather, the media, a crowd or working at a challenging location which makes giving the necessary care more demanding on your skills.”

Her dedication to medicine earned Ruth a nomination to Westfield’s Local Heroes this year and she was one of the lucky winners! She was very surprised to be nominated for the award and sees what her team do on a daily basis as nothing out of the ordinary.

“I was surprised at being nominated, it’s very flattering. We don’t think we are heroes; we are ordinary people who have become very practised at dealing with specific situations and we are very privileged to help people during the worst moments of their lives.”

Along with the prestige of the award, Ruth was given a $10,000 grant to use for CareFlight and she has already decided what it will be spent on.

“One of my roles is to train the new doctors, it’s like they are at a finishing school preparing them for the different situations they are likely to face. Some of the money will go towards a 3D printer so we can make more realistic models of parts of the anatomy to use in the training. The rest will be spent on a new ultrasound machine to keep in the helicopter. It fits in the palm of your hand, similar size to a smart phone, with a probe attached so we can assess patients while out on a call to check if they are bleeding internally or look at their heart or lungs.”

When she isn’t busy helping others, Ruth likes nothing better than to be with her husband Brian, who also works at CareFlight as an aircrew officer, and their two children. For relaxation she likes to hit the gym most days and follows it by catching up with friends over a coffee or breakfast.

“I’m big on going to the gym, I can get quite anxious, and exercise helps with that, but I’m all about balance and seeing my girlfriends regularly helps to keep my mental health on track.”

If you want to know more about CareFlight, make a donation or buy one of the well-known CareFlight Bears you can go to for more information.

Main picture: Dr Ruth Parsell takes the emergency team to the patient with CareFlight. Picture: Kathryn Johnston.

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