SMA Member Dr Geoffrey Thompson was recently recognised as the 2020 NT Australian of the year for his role in evacuating people during the wake of cyclone Tracey in 1974. Since then he’s been an amazing achiever, combing his passion for aviation and medicine, flying his own small planes to indigenous communities and running medical clinics. Has a strong interest in activity and health. Here are some of the highlights from his interview with the ABC.
Which year made you?
The most dramatic change for my life would be 1974. We live in a town that recognizes cyclones and its cyclone season. I was the air force doctor at the time and Darwin was a very active air force place at that stage, it’s not so much now. So, my job was to look after the air force personnel and the fighter pilot crew who were here at the time. We had a cyclone called Selma about two weeks before and like a lot of cyclones the threaten us we follow them on the meteor and pass away off to western Australia. This one was different. I wasn’t here on the night because my job rotated with the navy doctor at the time. I was in Wagga and I got a call early on the morning of Boxing Day 1974 to say get myself to Sydney very quickly as I was needed in Darwin because Darwin had been flattened. In those days there were no mobile phones and very little communications and the story that Darwin had been raised to the ground had been leaked by an amateur radio operator who managed to crank up a generator because there was no power and got the message out to the rest of Australia.
Can you paint a picture looking out of the RAAF window of Darwin in 1974?
I’ve got photographs that I look at from time to time not that I need reminding, it’s usually just to show people who weren’t born then. It was just devastation. It was like pictures that I remember seeing of Hiroshima. Everything was flattened and there was very little except the occasional water tower that looked like inhabitable buildings. The air strip that we had landed on was shortened because it was covered in debris. The house that I was moving into was all flattened and all our possessions were lost.
Flying into such an unimaginable situation, did you know what you had to do? And what were your immediate priorities?
Interestingly the air force trained us well because part of being a military officer in Australia is to look after emergency situations and to particularly be involved in medical evacuation. The air force have air crafts on standby to do that in floods and fires etc. I guess the idea was to find someone in the chaos and talk to him about how we might evacuate the yet unknown injured people who were wandering around town. We decided that the air force would look after people who needed drips and stretcher evacuations and the red cross looked after the walking wounded. So, what we then had to do was set up a central point and get people out of the town in a hurry.
What was the impact on you physically and mentally?
In the first instance you do what you must do. Part of my training was to work with various other doctors to triage – which was hard to do because I had to put aside the fact that my wife and I had lost everything we had – so for that first week I was being a very busy doctor. I barely got any sleep because between the doctors we would work out who had to go next in approximately 20 people at a time who went off in a C-130. And so, we would just load up one plane and send it off and then the next. That was pretty much our role for the week until the number of people who needed emergency evacuation to better medical care reduced. Then one thing that really hit me and it took a week for this to happen – someone sat down in front of me and asked: “Hey Doc how did you fare”. And I thought that was interesting because in times of crisis we pull our heads in to focus on our own surroundings and I said: “Like you I lost everything I owned”. I remember that very clearly, thinking, how other people fare when you’re in the middle of it doesn’t always matter so much. It does to people outside of the city and hearing it from the media and hence the great generosity from the people back then. There was an amazing evacuation of 20,000 people in that week.
Why did you specifically change to aviation in remote communities in the NT?
Aviation had always been a love of mine. When I was about nine, I wanted to learn to fly and in fact learned to fly and became a commercial pilot while I was studying medicine. I remember saying to my dad when I was about nine or ten that I’d love to be a flying doctor having no idea what it meant. It just sounded like a good combination of the two things I wanted to do. Part of aviation medicine training in the air force is a comprehensive understanding of the specific requirements of looking after people and keeping people well in the aviation environment. There are quite a lot of medical conditions where flying needs special consideration. The air force is able to deal with this very well because we have an airplane which you can pressurize which allows people with pressure sensitive injuries to be transported by air. Through initially the Anglican church they invited me to run regular clinics in remote areas of the NT.
The newest specialty area in medicine was formed as formal specialty and I’m a proud founding member of the Australian College of Sport and Exercise Medicine. On the one hand we are the doctors who look after the AFL, NRL, netball, tennis and our Olympians. And of course, the other side of sport and exercise medicine is exercise. We don’t fair well globally. If you look at a recent survey of 146 countries in the world, Australia ranks 140th on the scale. But even worse our adolescents rank 146th out of 150 in a similar survey. We are a Nation of sports watchers and lovers but not activity participants. All we need is 30 minutes of exercise 5 days a week, but every week of your life. That’s all! It can be cumulative so three sessions of 10 minutes!
Listen to the full interview here: https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/sundayextra/the-year-that-made-me:-geoff-thompson,-1974/12086300