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First heli Dr still flying high

09:20pm March 07 2019

Dr Sue Rowley’s story of becoming the Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service’s first doctor in 1976. (Josh Wall)

In 1976, young doctor Sue Rowley came across a new concept of bringing patients into hospital that would ultimately change her life. 

After initially arriving in Australia on a holiday, Rowley took her first job at Mona Vale hospital on Sydney’s northern beaches and discovered ambulances weren’t the only way of transporting patients: there was also a helicopter pad. 

“Coming from a background in London where we were sent out with well-equipped ambulances to various accident sites, I asked them about their equipment and whether they had medical support or a doctor involved flying with them,” Rowley recalls of her initial discussions with what is today known as the Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service

“He said they weren't being taken seriously enough and I said ‘well, I take you seriously and I'd like to be a helicopter doctor. I'll come and work at your base if you like next weekend’. And so I did.”

Speaking ahead of today’s International Women’s Day, Rowley’s story as the helicopter rescue service’s first doctor speaks to the dramatic shifts across society since the 1950s, but which never stopped her. 

At age 10, she recalls her father speaking to the school headmaster to ask whether she could play cricket at lunch with the boys. Then, when interviewing for university in London, Rowley was asked whether it was worthwhile for the medical school to take people like me. “Because surely we (women) were going to get married and have children and (it) wouldn't really be worth financially investing their time and effort,” she says. 

“And it will also be hard to have a higher mark than the guys to get in. It was automatic that we had to have a higher level to get into university than the boys did.”

Rowley, who continues to work as a GP in Sydney, lost none of her spirit after achieving her medical qualifications and heading to Australia for what ended up being a “long holiday”. When agreeing to be the helicopter rescue service’s doctor, she didn't realise surf lifesaving had no women in its ranks serving on the beaches. 

Yet soon enough, she was involved in high profile rescues such as assisting a small fishing boat at sea in trouble and surrounded by sharks. “The first person out of the helicopter, Rick … was winched down and he signalled that he wanted me to come down as he was unable to assess or treat the then semi-conscious patient,” she recalls. 

“I had a look around the boat and the size of the boat and I had absolute confidence that the pilot would be able to accurately drop me in the middle of this small bobbing boat – and he did.”

But Rowley says doubts lingered in the early days about the broader power of helicopter rescues in the industry, getting “teased” when also working at Royal North Shore Hospital on weekends for her belief it could become a speciality and assist in other emergency situations. 

She says that began to change after she self-funded a trip in 1980 around the world to study using a helicopter before people get to hospital, gaining greater knowledge about resourcing, fleet usage and equipment. Rowley continued in her role with the helicopter rescue service until 1985. Today, the organisation works under contract with NSW Department of Health and NSW Ambulance, along with many other partners and volunteers. 

“I hope that being the first helicopter rescue doctor in Australia will inspire other people to achieve their firsts,” Rowley says. 

Westpac has been the Naming Rights Sponsor of the Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service since 1975. 

Josh Wall is the Head of Video at Westpac Wire. Prior to joining the team, he spent 10 years as a video journalist and documentary filmmaker, most recently as Head of Video for the Guardian Australia. He also worked across numerous News Corp mastheads in Sydney as a presenter, producer, writer and video journalist. Josh is originally from Perth, Western Australia where he began his career by co-creating a video magazine that focused on music and the arts.

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