Life as an emergency retrieval doctor – and retrieved patient – in the outback

Dr Tim Duncan1

1Aeromedical Retrieval Specialist, RFDS Queensland

Doctors and nurses have the remarkable privilege of sometimes providing the gift of life.  It is the reason many of us get into health care, and it’s often what makes a career in these fields most worthwhile.  For others it takes a crisis, a first hand encounter with the healing power of our professions.  For me, coming face to face with death in the middle of nowhere was when this fundamental motivation resonated.  As emergency and remote medicine saved me, it was clear taking this career path myself would both allow me to make the most difference I could, and give my second chance at life the most meaning.  It also gave an important perspective, that of a patient.

Prior to this, as a somewhat disillusioned junior doctor with minimal career direction, the metropolitan hospital system had been fun but ultimately lacked meaning.  I didn’t feel part of a community, nor was there a specialist training pathway I was passionate about.  For this reason I left medicine and took up a position as a film making student at the Victorian College of the Arts.  Hollywood beckoned, or so I hoped!

Subsequently a car accident in Kakadu threatened to end my life. Were it not for 3 Aboriginal men passing by, the quick response of the local emergency service and the retrieval doctor, it would have.  A coincidental encounter with an Indigenous patient I’d treated in Katherine during his own brush with death, combined with my own experience, invigorated a passion for remote, retrieval and Indigenous medicine that continues today.

The pilots, doctors and nurses involved with the Royal Flying Doctor Service – where I now work – do so where no city is closer than 1000 miles.  Serving in remote communities and particularly making a difference to this continent’s first people, whose health remains ever compromised by over 200 years of colonisation and marginalisation, remains an immensely satisfying way to spend a day’s work.


Tim is an aeromedical retrieval specialist who has worked as a doctor with the RFDS Queensland Section for over 3 years. He is also a generalist anaesthetist and film maker.  He lives in Melbourne, Mt Isa and he gets to the remote parts of the Northern Territory when he can, for that is where his own life was saved and changed.

Click here for full biography (RFDS).