For many Australians who live in cities, their only experience of the Flying Doctors is the long-running TV series of the same name.
The Flying Doctors hit Australian television screens in 1985 as a three-part miniseries. It was an immediate success and was relaunched as a regular series that ran for more than 200 episodes.
For Sydney-based marketing consultant Dee Mills, the show was compulsory viewing as a child.
“I just loved it,” Dee, 37, recalled. “I loved the characters and the fact that it was set in the Outback.”
But for the new mother, the show became reality when she was bitten by a snake while visiting relatives on a sheep station, outside of Brewarrina.
Dee, her husband, James, 35, and new baby, Jaxon, had just arrived at Gilgoin – a sprawling and isolated property in north-west New South Wales.
It was 42 degrees, the air conditioning was on and everyone was watching the cricket.
“I had left some magazines in the car,” Dee recalls. “I thought I would quickly dash out and grab them. It’s snake country so normally we would wear closed shoes. I’m paranoid about snakes.
“But because I was only ducking out I borrowed a pair of my auntie’s thongs. I was sort of creeping along, looking for snakes. Big mistake. I should have been stomping across the lawn.”
When Dee accidentally trod on an unidentified snake, it bit her on the foot.
“It was like a bee sting. I was doing the high jig and the snake was doing figure eights underneath me while I tried not to step on it again.
“Because they had the air conditioning on in the house, no one could hear me scream. You’re supposed to stay immobile, of course, but I had to leave that spot, and leave the snake. I had to run up to the window and bang on it and say ‘hey, I’ve just been bitten by a snake’.”
Dee’s family fitted her with a compression bandage and called triple-zero.
The situation was further complicated because Dee was still breastfeeding young Jaxon.
“That was my main concern. Just tell me if I can breastfeed my child or not because it was really hot and we had to keep the baby hydrated.”
Everyone waited anxiously to see if Dee would begin suffering symptoms.
Meanwhile, an ambulance was dispatched from Brewarrina and Dee, husband James, the baby and members of the family drove out to meet it.
At Brewarrina Health Service a swab of the bite area confirmed that Dee had been “probably” bitten by a non-poisonous variety of snake – but the protocol for any bite victim is overnight observation.
“The hospital was not equipped if something began to happen so I needed to get to the next biggest hospital, which was Dubbo. That’s when the Flying Doctor was called.”
Dee said she had watched the television show as a child and was a “massive” fan.
“When I was stretchered out of the back of the ambulance at Brewarrina and saw the plane I was going on, I was really excited.
“Then I thought, hang on, I’m not on a scenic tour here. I felt guilty to be honest, because I didn’t feel sick and I know the Flying Doctor relies on grants and donations and does really important work.”
Dee and baby Jaxon flew to Dubbo where the Base Hospital kept her overnight for observation. Husband James, driving from Gilgoin, arrived to join them early the next morning.
“You would be surprised at how many of friends say ‘oh my God, was it like the TV show?’ I think it was a cultural icon in its day.
“I felt bad because I didn’t feel I was a needy patient. My aunt and uncle at Gilgoin, however, are quite isolated. They know how important the service is.
“I certainly wasn’t in a life-threatening situation, although it could have been. But my respect for the RFDS, their professionalism and the job they do in Outback Australia has certainly been confirmed.”