There is an angel in Port Macquarie. Granted, he’s a bit hard to recognise as such, dressed as he usually is in his trademark polo shirt, Bermuda shorts and long socks. But he’s a genuine angel, all right. People living in remote locations across New South Wales, needing non-emergency treatment in city hospitals, know what an angel he is.
Remote Australia is brilliantly served by the Royal Flying Doctor Service, which brings doctors into outback locations and transports emergency cases from outlying areas to city hospitals.
But there is another category of rural dweller in real need of support. These are the people who suffer conditions requiring major hospital treatment, perhaps regularly, but who do not qualify as emergency cases.
For these people, needed medical treatment may be days of agonising car travel away. Often, as in the case of a child with brittle bone disease (osteogenesis imperfecta) even a trip from Coffs Harbour to Sydney can take days of short, painful stages.
For the ‘lucky’ few, commercial air transport may be an option – generally at major cost to the family. For most, it is simply not an available or financially achievable option. Sometimes, patients need to carry an oxygen bottle or other equipment with them, that cannot be carried by commercial flights.
About 10 years ago, Bill Bristow, a successful businessman and experienced pilot, was flying in the US with other pilots, who were sharing with him the extraordinary feelings they experienced through charity flying. Bristow returned to Australia with a sense of purpose.
From stories told by his friends living in remote areas, and through his association with the Royal Flying Doctor Service, Bristow was acutely aware of the extreme hardship experienced by people in rural communities and the potential risk placed on their health when living away from the major metropolitan centres.
The outcome of his, and many others’ dedication was the inauguration, in 2003, of Angel Flight.
Angel Flight is a charity that coordinates non-emergency flights to help country people trying to deal with the triple trouble of bad health, poor finances and daunting distance.
All flights are free and may involve patients being flown by volunteer pilots to medical facilities anywhere in Australia.
And this is where our local angel comes in. By day, Graham Bell is a mild-mannered businessman, operating his aviation fuel business based in Port Macquarie. But a call from Angel Flight headquarters can shift his underwear to the outside (figuratively speaking, at least) and he becomes Bravo Victor November, Angel Flight.
Graham was among the first Australian pilots to join the Angel Flight volunteers. He laughs when he tells how American pilots typically fly one-hour Angel Flights. They are staggered by the distances flown by Australian volunteers. For a typical flight, Graham may pilot his all-weather equipped aircraft from Port Macquarie to Coonabarabran, to pick up his passenger, then to Bankstown airport in Sydney and, finally, back home to Port Macquarie. That’s a very long day by anyone’s reckoning, and frequently ends well into the night.
While his fuel costs for each flight may be recompensed, Graham, and many others like him across Australia, donate a huge amount of time, wear and tear on their aircraft, and all their expertise to safely deliver fellow Australians from remote locations to the security of major health treatment centres.
When he’s not flying for Angel Flight, Graham is an enthusiastic spokesman for the charity at social and business gatherings.
For his contributions to Australian society, Bill Bristow was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia.
For Graham Bell, his reward is in putting his deeply held Christian faith into practice by giving of his time, exceptional flying skills and his aircraft for the benefit of fellow Australians.
That’s pretty angelic behaviour. Good on you Graham!
Note: Angel Flight is a not-for-profit agency and Registered Australian Charity. More information can be found at: www.angelflight.org.au
> Story By Gregg Faulkner