Millions of regional Australians love life on the land but country living could be leading to serious heartache.
Regional Australians are 1.6 times more likely to be hospitalised due to heart disease compared to their city counterparts, new research by the Royal Flying Doctor Service has revealed.
North-west Queensland graziers Lux and Linley Lethbridge know all too well how life-threatening heart disease can be when living in the bush.
Mr Lethbridge suffered a heart attack at Werrington Station, more than four-and-a-half-hours drive to the nearest major hospital.
“I felt pretty crook one day and said to my wife that I wasn’t feeling well. She, being a trained nurse, took my pulse and said it was very irregular so she got onto the flying doctor and they said they’d come straight out,” he said.
“I was a bit worried. I didn’t know whether it was the end. I didn’t realise how serious it was.
In Cairns, medication had no effect so they had to knock me out, stop my heart and restart it again. I’ve been right ever since.”
Decades later, it was his wife’s turn to call the flying doctor.
“I had been experiencing strange unusual fluttering feelings in both of my arms between the elbows and shoulders and I thought this must be an angina of some kind,” Mrs Lethbridge said.
“I suddenly had a feeling that something was really going to happen. I felt as if I was going to have a heart attack … the plane arrived and within 40 minutes I was half way to Townsville.
“When I woke up [at the Mater Hospital in Brisbane] the cardiologist came to me and he said, ‘Mrs Lethbridge I don’t know you but I know your arteries and you were one heartbeat away from the end’.”
Why regional Australians are at higher risk
The national research paper commissioned by the Royal Flying Doctor Service also showed heart health and cardiovascular disease were the reason for 21 per cent of RFDS flights in recent years.
“Country Australians access medical services at half the rate and medical specialists at one third the rate of those in the city,” RFDS CEO Martin Laverty said.
“It is unacceptable that country people experience death rates one-and-a-half-times higher than city people. Cardiovascular disease is preventable and the RFDS is committed to improving these statistics.”
Limited access to medical services, as well as of lifestyle factors like higher cholesterol and smoking rates, were key factors hurting hearts in the bush, according to the RFDS report.
Remote graziers said the stress that came with life of the land also had a large impact.
“Being in the bush and depending on your livestock and gambling on the seasons all the time, you don’t think you’re being stressed out but when you’re watching your cattle die over the years it does have an effect on you,” Mr Lethbridge said.
“When you’re gambling your livelihood against the elements, things you’ve got no control over, it can get a bit daunting.”
‘I want to give back’
Queensland musician Jeremy Marou, half of duo Busby Marou, hoped to help spread the message about heart health to regional Australia after his own life-threatening experience.
The recent CMC Rocks headliner was flown from Rockhampton after suffering a heart attack during a family football game last year.
Marou’s father died from a heart attack on the same touch football field 15 years earlier.
“I was playing alongside my young son and at the game I suffered a heart attack,” he said.
“When you’re [a musician] on tour it’s pretty much a bender. Lots of alcohol, lots of cigarettes and living unhealthily.”
The life-threatening experience caused Marou to turn his life around and he hopes his story can help others do the same.
“Heart attacks are very serious and thankfully I had the flying doctors. Now I want to give back,” he said.
Government won’t confirm funding boost
The charity’s chief executive said he hoped both state and federal governments would provide additional funding to tackle heart health in remote Australia after the revelations in the report.
“We’ve been talking to the states, the territories and the Commonwealth Government over many months abut the findings of the [RFDS research into] cardiovascular care,” Mr Laverty said.
“We’re making a case to say that more resources are required so that no matter where you live in this country, you have the same access to doctors and cardiologists.”
Member for Rural Health, Senator Brigid McKenzie, said the issue of heart health in regional Australia was an important one.
However she would not confirm whether the Federal Government would consider boosting RFDS funding to tackle the issue.
“The [RFSD] report is a valuable addition to our national knowledge base on chronic conditions, and their treatment and management,” she said.
“The Commonwealth Government is the largest funder of the RFDS nationally [and] the Coalition is committed to addressing maldistribution and improving access to health services in rural and regional Australia.”