Flying heart surgeon saves lives in remote areas

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Every month, cardiologist Ross Sharpe flies his own plane from the Gold Coast to the remote rural New South Wales town of Moree.

Waiting for him are patients requiring lifesaving treatment – many of them from Indigenous communities, who have travelled up to six hours to reach his clinic from as far as Lightning Ridge and communities west of Goondiwindi.

Dr Sharpe started his voluntary service two years ago with cardiac technician Matthew Morall, and they have since assessed some 1,500 patients with regular, non-invasive testing such as echo-cardiograms, ultrasound scans and stress tests.

“Due to the prevalence of childhood rheumatic fever in Indigenous communities, the population has a high incidence of rheumatic heart disease, which leads to leakages and narrowing of the heart valves,” said the Gold Coast Private Hospital surgeon.

“Indigenous people also have a high risk of developing coronary disease as a result of their increased susceptibility to Type 2 diabetes. These conditions can lead to significant complications and, if left untreated, can be life-threatening,” he added.

Dr Sharpe said the cardiovascular morbidity and mortality rates for rural patients are around 50 percent higher than in regional areas or cities, which are often more than 500km away.

“People in rural communities, Indigenous or otherwise, have a significantly increased risk of dying from cardiovascular conditions than those living in cities like the Gold Coast, simply due to a lack of access to services and specialists,” he said. “The toll of travelling to the city to see a doctor can be stressful and costly – be it for cultural reasons, or due to time spent away from family or work.”

Dr Sharpe said the remote clinic refers between five to 10 percent of its patients to hospitals on the Gold Coast, Tamworth or Newcastle for surgical interventions, meaning many don’t have to travel to cities for treatment – or do so only once for the operation.

“It is ultimately a huge saving on the public purse,” he said, adding that he would like to see more city-based specialists from other fields visiting rural communities.

Dr Sharpe paid tribute to the stoicism of his patients, and said their gratitude “makes the trip worthwhile”.

“I remember a farm-hand who, before he got his pacemaker, would fall unconscious, dust himself off and continue to work.

“It is not unusual to hear that sort of story. These people just battle on. They put up with the worst symptoms and brush it off as if it is nothing. Not only are they tough, they are grateful. They are incredibly appreciative that we make the effort to visit,” he said.

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