First responder and farm safety advocate Robyn Neilson spoke to rural doctors at the 2019 RDAQ Conference.
First responder and farm safety advocate Robyn Neilson spoke to rural doctors at the 2019 RDAQ Conference. RDAQ photographer

Farm safety advocate speaks out to rural doctors

ROBYN Neilson shared her story of farm safety and post traumatic stress disorder in rural first responders, with nearly 300 rural doctors this past week.

Ms Neilson was a keynote speaker at the 2019 Rural Doctors Association of Queensland in Cairns, addressing rural doctors and medical students.

Robyn Neilson was first responder to a devastating farm accident in central Queensland in 2002.

She spoke in depth about the circumstances she faced when called to a neighbour's property.

"This is the first time I've told my story to a group of medical practitioners and I appeal to you as rural doctors to become champions for rural safety,” Ms Neilson said.

Mac and Gayle Shann's story was told on ABC Australian Story's With This Ring, reportedly the program's most-watched episode.

It was Ms Neilson's 'obsession with farm safety' that allowed her to respond quickly and effectively in the days before mobile phones and GPS.

She was able to provide the Rural Flying Doctor Service with ready-to-hand position co-ordinates, and surface and length details about nearby landing strips.

But, even her experience as a trained nurse did not prepare her for the extent and severity of the injuries she faced when she arrived at the Shann's property to attend to Gayle.

An accident with a post hole digger just outside the homestead had left Gayle with severe trauma injuries. These included a tear injury from her severed arm and shoulder blade, and a cut on her face that left her eye socket exposed.

"Essentially, in the time period between the accident happening and medical help arriving, Robyn single-handedly kept Gayle alive,” RDFS Medical Officer Dr Cliff Neppe said.

While she waited for medical help to arrive, Ms Neilson spent almost two hours fighting for Gayle's life, making difficult decisions and working hard with limited equipment to stem bleeding.

Not long after the RFDS flew Gayle to Townsville Hospital, Ms Neilson's own post-traumatic stress disorder emergedand left her a 'vomiting, crying mess'.

"I couldn't understand it, as nothing had happened to me,” Ms Neilson said. 

Her message for rural doctors was to look after themselves and other first responders, but to also be proactive about promoting farm safety and accident prevention. 

"Rural doctors are an important conduit to the farm safety process. I would like to see material about farm accident prevention in surgeries and WorkCover Queensland some very good products,” Ms Neilson said. 

"More importantly, though, it's to have those difficult conversations. 

"If someone comes in with a broken arm or a laceration or a child has fallen off a vehicle to discuss farm safety procedures and to ask if they have evacuation plans in place if someone worse occurs.” 

RDAQ President Dr Clare Walker said farm accidents, particularly trauma in children from work and recreational activities, forms a large part of rural medical practice. 

"When we are treating the injury we don't always think about how prevention can be addressed so this is a good reminder,” Dr Walker said. 

"The Rural Doctors' Conference is a great place for this message as we often work in isolation but each year we come together with peers and colleagues from across the state. 

"We use the opportunity to debrief so learning how to also prevent injuries and the situations that traumatise first responders, including doctors, is important.” 

Ms Neilson's passion for farm safety continues through her work as a guest lecturer at James Cook University.

She is currently in the process of developing a free-to-download app to help on-farm implementation of safety systems.