Outback Adventures: Why You Need a Plan


Hi, this is Tim Ellis from Excel Physiotherapy, Mascot and I’m currently in Alice Springs where I’ve been visiting a friend who had a nasty accident—resulting in a spinal fracture—in the remote, but beautiful Australian Outback. Let’s have a look at what happened, and what lessons we can learn that may be helpful to others.

Let me paint a picture

It’s a gorgeous Sunday afternoon in this beautiful but remote part of Australia. Alice Springs is hot, really hot, and dry, so dry that it’s hard to speak. There are irritating flies everywhere. The nearest natural water source is about fifty kilometres away at Ellery Creek Big Hole. You’re with a group of mates and decide to make the drive on rough Outback roads. Finally you arrive, so what could be more natural or more fun on such a hot, dry afternoon than to frolic about in the cool fresh water? What could be better than a jump from the rocks into the enticing water below?

Trouble is, accidents do happen—to all of us. Of all Olympic sports, diving gives rise to the greatest number of spinal injuries. And that’s what happened here. After a 15-metre jump, Jim (not his real name) felt an immediate searing pain in his back and neck and he knew he was in trouble. Fortunately, friends had seen it and were on hand. They even had an inflatable lilo and got Jim on that—but kept him in the cool water—and tried to phone for help, but out here in the Outback there’s no mobile phone coverage.

Luckily, there was an emergency SOS radio phone about a kilometre away. After frustrating attempts—when the line cut out—finally the message got through to Alice Springs. After an agonising three hour wait (it was Australia Day) the paramedics arrived. They said keeping Jim on the lilo was the best thing that they could have done, the cool water had kept the inflammation down and the buoyancy—as opposed to being on dry land—actually took the strain from the injury. They put Jim on a spinal board and then made the arduous drive back across the Outback roads to get Jim to Alice Springs hospital.

Later that day, a suspected neck (C7) and a definite thoracic spine (T12) fracture were detected.

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Seven weeks later, Jim is out of his brace and walking. He has a great exercise program from his favourite physio from Excel Physio in Mascot! That same physio has just accompanied him to visit an Orthopaedic surgeon, who flies in just once a fortnight from Perth. As luck would have it, there was no actual spinal cord or neurological injury—and there is no reason to suspect that Jim won’t make a full recovery in time.
So, what can we learn from this?

Firstly, it’s okay to have fun. In fact it’s imperative.
Some think that the higher the adrenalin rush that you get from the adventurous activity the greater the stress relief. That means that diving, abseiling, jumping, flying, trekking, etc. are great stress busters and good for your physicality, too. However:

You need a contingency plan, and it may be as basic as:

1. Where am I going? Who am I with?
2. Who knows where I am?
3. What am I going to do and what are the risks?
4. Am I experienced enough for what I am about to do?
5. Am I prepared for the worst?
6. Can I get help if something goes wrong?
7. Can I stay safe and warm if I am immobilised?

If you have good answers to ALL of these questions, then you are prepared.

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In the Outback, it is important to understand that medical facilities are not as sophisticated as they are here in the city. Doctors, nurses, and physios are stretched and are simply doing the best they can. So, you may need to call upon others for help. Fortunately, Jim’s sister-in-law is a neurosurgeon and I am a physio, and we have the basic ability to travel and be of support. His parents also flew in from the UK.

When you see a specialist, though, it is really helpful to have someone alongside, preferably someone with experience of the medical world. That person can make sure that you have all your questions answered, and acts as another pair of ears— we tend to forget about a third of what we have heard, even in a ten-minute consultation.

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Well, it has been fascinating to be here and it is a really beautiful place. The night sky is quite something—drive just ten minutes out of town and there literally is no artificial light, or noise. I have seen the Milky Way in full glory—just as Aboriginal elders would have done for thousands of years. The unmistakable Australian red of the MacDonnell ranges provides the backdrop to the town and creates a feeling of being in a kind of giant natural theatre. As a Pohmmy it is a very humbling experience.

Most of all though, I’m grateful to have had this opportunity to have been helpful to a friend with an injury. It has given me so much in return. I hope this information is useful to anyone else who is about to undertake an Outback adventure!