Dr Rob Bartolacci

Rescue conducts a Q&A with Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service’s Dr Rob Bartolacci
One of Australia’s most experienced Retrieval Specialists…


Rescue: What is your professional background?

Dr Rob: I graduated from the University of Sydney with a Bachelor of Medicine and a Bachelor of Surgery (Honours) and continued my studies at the Royal Newcastle and John Hunter hospitals. I progressed to specialise in Anaesthesia and Retrieval Medicine, supplementing my study with a year of post-fellowship training at the University of Michigan in the US. I currently work at John Hunter Hospital as an Anaesthetist/Retrieval Specialist running the trauma theatre on a regular basis, and in private practice anaesthesia, along with my work at the Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service.

Rescue: And the Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service?

Dr Rob: Medicine and anaesthesia might have been my ‘calling’, but I always had a passion to fly. I started work with Sydney’s CareFlight in 1991 and now I’m part of Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service. It is a great way to incorporate my passion and my work.

Rescue: What are the advantages of having a doctor in partnership with paramedics and emergency response teams?

Dr Rob: Where minutes count we bring the hospital and the specialists to the injured person, anywhere, anytime, 24 hours a day. Not any Doctor can work with the Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service. All the Doctors are Specialists or advanced trainees in the fields of Anaesthesia, Emergency Medicine or Intensive Care. Imagine a patient is brought to hospital after an accident. These are the Doctors looking after the person in the hospital. If those Doctors are trained to work outside the hospital, as we are with theWestpac Helicopter, then all the important life-saving treatments can be started right there, even while a person is trapped in a car or stuck on a cliff. Doctors can give much more sophisticated pain relief; we can give a blood transfusion; we can use an ultrasound at the scene to detect bleeding and trauma to vital organs; we can give an anaesthetic to protect an injured brain or save a life by reinflating collapsed lungs. In extreme cases we can even amputate limbs. Without the addition of the doctors to the Rescue team these things would have to wait until the patient gets to hospital. Doctors can also organise the hospital’s needs ahead of time. As part of the Hunter New England Health system we can call ahead to organise CT scans or urgent surgery, making the flow to definitive care that much quicker. The unique team combination uses the first response trauma care and rescue expertise of the Paramedics, with the advanced medical capabilities of the doctor to give patients the very best chance of survival. The Doctor and Paramedic can then be flown to wherever they are needed to start this treatment in the vital minutes after an accident.

Rescue: What about rescues you have been involved in?

Dr Rob: Claustral Canyon in the Blue Mountains was an interesting one. A girl was out walking in the canyon and the weather that particular day was wet. The canyon become very slippery and consequently she fell, damaging her back so much she couldn’t walk. The weather became so bad the land rescue team could not get to her location on foot, so a call was made and I was the Doctor on board the emergency flight to rescue the girl. It took some time to find the injured girl and by that stage we were running low on daylight and fuel. The crew and I made the difficult decision that after being winched down, we would be left overnight and the helicopter would return in the morning when it would be safer to be winched out. Over the course of the night we had to keep moving location as the canyon was filling up with water. We treated the patient and looked after her through the night andwere even able to light a fire. The following morning the weather had slightlycalmed and the girl and I were winched safely on board the helicopter. This was when the trouble started! In order to hover, a helicopter pilot uses a reference point. But due to the extreme weather the reference point the pilot had chosen, a large cloud, rapidly changed to the sun, therefore blinding his vision. I could hear the pilot and co-pilot communicating through the in-craft communication system and that’s one of the few moments in my life I thought we may crash. I stayed silent, allowing the pilot and crewman to delicately extract us from deep in the canyon to safety. This kind of exceptional teamwork is one of the reasons I love working in this system.

Rescue: Can you train for something like that?

Dr Rob: Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service ensures we get the best training possible to do our jobs to the highest standard and level of efficiency. Helicopter under water escape training (HUET) teaches more than how to escape from a chopper if it crashes in water. HUET teaches you to always remain calm and think rationally when in emergency and extremely challenging situations. This can be applied to many other aspects of my job and is essential in the smooth running of a rescue mission. The service also teaches us about teamwork and crew resource management to allow all members to fulfil their role while respecting and relying on each other’s unique skills and responsibilities. It makes the whole unit much more powerful than each individual.

Rescue: Have you ever needed the Service?

Dr Rob: I was staying with my family in Barrington Tops in a very remote area. The kind of place where there’s no point trying to use your mobile phone. My son and I were out chopping wood when he had an accident with one of the chainsaws we were using. He hurt himself quite badly and as he’s 6”2 (188cm) and 100kg and we had parked a couple of hours down the road, I knew immediately that there was no way we were going to get out on our own and if left there we were in deep trouble. I made the decision and used our satellite phone to call Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service. Before too long I heard the familiar thud of the Helicopter and then felt a sigh of relief as I saw it in the distance. The crew were brilliant and had my son packaged and winched into the aircraft in no time at all and on his way to John Hunter. He has made a full recovery and not touched a chainsaw since!

Rescue: Any thoughts on the future of the Helicopter Service?

Dr Rob: The future looks bright and exciting for the Service as a whole. The new crew configuration with the Doctors and a new aircraft in the near future means we will only get better. As a team we are continually developing new techniques for use in the helicopter and investigating and implementing smaller lighter and more functional medical equipment to allow us to do even more for our patients before they reach the hospital.

Rescue: Final thoughts?

Dr Rob: I just love my job. Everyone who works for Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service does so to be part of team that really cares for its community. I am proud to be a part of that team.