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Saving lives from the air

LifeFlight rescue helicopters (Supplied by LifeFlight)

Personnel Image

Written By

Bianca de Loryn

College/Division

College of Public Health, Medical and Veterinary Sciences

Publish Date

7 June 2022

From ED nurse to RACQ LifeFlight

JCU alumni Renee Bolot tells us about how her career took flight as a Rotary Wing Flight nurse on a helicopter for LifeFlight in Brisbane.

JCU alumna Renee Bolot knew she wanted to be a nurse from a young age. “When I was 13, I broke my leg. Whilst I was on the ward, I had this fabulous nurse looking after me. I was so scared, and she was there every day looking after me. I knew straight away that I wanted to be a nurse,” Renee says.

After studying nursing in Sydney, Renee moved to Brisbane and worked at a large tertiary Intensive Care Unit (ICU). Then she spent two years as a critical care nurse in London, before coming home to Australia to work in a busy Emergency Department (ED). “Working in ED was exciting, dynamic and really complex. You rely heavily on your colleagues,” Renee says. “I loved the team environment, the varied clinical exposure and problem solving.”

However, after 7 years, the high pace of the Emergency Department was starting to lose its appeal. “I was looking for a new adventure. Something where both Emergency and ICU nursing were combined,” Renee says.

When Renee heard that RACQ LifeFlight Rescue was opening a new base in Brisbane, she moved on from saving lives on the ground to saving lives in the air. “I love the team at Brisbane Base, it is such a unique work environment with pilots, doctors and engineers,” Renee says. “We all work together to achieve the same goal: serving our community and providing the best patient care no matter where you are in Queensland.”

Learning more about air rescue

In 2015, when she started working in a helicopter as a Rotary Wing Flight nurse, Renee was new to the aeromedical industry. That’s when Renee decided to sign up for the Graduate Certificate of Aeromedical Retrieval at JCU. “This course taught me so much, from the effects of gas laws on medical equipment and patients, right down to vital things such as patient packaging. It was a game changer, and I highly recommend it for anyone who is in or wanting to get into the industry.”

In the beginning, Renee worked as a full-time flight nurse, but now she is doing two days on the helicopter and three days per week as a Clinical Governance and Patient Safety officer in LifeFlight’s Brisbane head office. “This part of my job I find absolutely fascinating. I get to look at all the High Interest events across the state. These might be cardiac arrests in care or critical procedures like surgical airways,” she says.” I review our current systems and processes and look at how we can continue to improve our service, which ultimately improves patient outcomes.”

Renee Bolot Rotary Wing Flight nurse.
Renee Bolot Rotary Wing Flight nurse.
Renee is now working two days per week on the helicopter. (Supplied by Renee Bolot / LifeFlight)

Long days and even longer nights on the helicopter

When Renee works from the RACQ LifeFlight Rescue helicopter, she does ten-hour days or fourteen-hour nights. The day shifts start with the morning checks. “We meet with the critical care doctor and check our medical and aviation equipment. That includes the medical bags, oxygen levels, blood, helmets and harnesses that need to be ready to go,” Renee says.

“Then we do an aviation brief with the pilot and the medical crew. We discuss key risks for the day such as fatigue management, concerns, weather, and the implications this may have on tasking. Then we go through the emergency briefing,” Renee says.  “Having this brief is important to us as a crew. It institutes communication lines and joins us as a team. It makes everyone aware of each other and gives us a space to discuss any current issues and recent mission debrief points.”

Most day shifts are very busy in South East Queensland, Renee says. “We are usually out straight away, and usually we're out all day.” Night shifts can be fatiguing, like all shift work, when the team is busy. “But it’s absolutely incredible flying at night,” Renee says.

Rescuing people in Southeast Queensland

Renee flies around in an Agusta Westland AW139, a helicopter well suited for retrievals. It is a spacious aircraft with exceptional operational capabilities. “From Brisbane, we can go up to Gladstone, which is up to two hours one way, or about 550 kilometres, until we need to refuel. Or out to Roma, to the west,” Renee says.

“But we usually cover the southeast corner and fly to places like Bundaberg or Hervey Bay, Kingaroy or Toowoomba,” Renee says.  “We could be going to someone with a heart attack or to a car crash. You can’t predict it and that’s what I love about this job; it tests you on all levels.”

Full-time work and part-time study

While Renee was working towards her Graduate Certificate of Aeromedical Retrieval she was working full time for LifeFlight. “I had to make time, block time off and be really organized,” Renee says. But she was also grateful that LifeFlight supported her studies. “I could rotate my shifts around exam time. My work was really flexible.”

Renee kept on studying after that, adding a Master of Public Health to her resume. “It was really interesting studying about pandemics whilst we were going through one,” she says. “The entire course taught me so much, with so many transferrable skills.”

Plans for the rest of 2022

With two days per week on the helicopter and three days doing clinical governance, Renee says she is going to be very busy for the rest of the year. However, being a bit of a self-proclaimed workaholic, she is considering doing her Master of Business Administration (MBA) as well.

“After 7 years in this job and moving hundreds of patients around the state, I still feel incredibility privileged to have this job and to be able to provide the service we do,” Renee says.

How to get a Graduate Certificate of Aeromedical Retrieval

People who are interested in learning more about aeromedical retrieval need a Bachelor’s degree in a relevant health profession as well as a significant amount of relevant postgraduate experience.

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