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Graham Cowden meets up with the RACQ LifeFlight Rescue pilot that rescued him after a serious motorbike accident.
Graham Cowden meets up with the RACQ LifeFlight Rescue pilot that rescued him after a serious motorbike accident. brian cassidy

‘I’d be dead without them’

Not all heroes wear capes, but in this case they do fly. These are inspiring stories with happy endings thanks to our stars in the sky, as told to Rory Gibson.

SLOWLY, painfully, Graham Crowden is piecing his life back together - and his body.

He can't remember much about the accident which almost killed him, but he can remember what his life was like before it happened. His life today is nothing like that.

"I take each day as it comes and keep smiling," Graham says. "The only thing that bothers me is the inability to do the things I used to do."

By that he means keeping supremely fit. Before the accident two years ago he used to run 30km a week, go to the gym regularly, swim. He was active in the community and secretary of his local RSL sub-branch.

That all ended the day a car collided with his Harley Davidson on the outskirts of Bundaberg, where he lives.

Graham Crowden had been riding Harley Davidsons for 42 years until a horrific crash on Rosedale Rd left him for dead.
Graham Crowden had been riding Harley Davidsons for 42 years until a horrific crash on Rosedale Rd left him for dead. Mike Knott

The most visible sign of Graham's trauma that he is missing his left leg. His pelvis and some ribs were shattered too, and the pain that comes from being held together by wire doesn't go away.

The former RAAF member tries not to dwell on his misfortune. He is back riding his beloved Harley Davidson, and planning to contribute once again to his community - by volunteering to help the organisation he credits with saving his life.

"I'm here today only because of the efforts of the LifeFlight crew," says Graham, who also credits a young motorist who stopped and administered CPR until the Bundaberg RACQ LifeFlight Rescue arrived.

"I wouldn't have survived the trip to Bundaberg Hospital by road."

Graham was stabilised in hospital in Bundaberg that day, then flown the next day in another RACQ LifeFlight Rescue chopper to Brisbane where he received specialist care.

Having been given a second chance at life, Graham is determined to do what he can to give back to RACQ LifeFlight Rescue.

"I don't think there's ever been a more worthy cause," he says.

"Any help that anyone can give them, whether it be volunteering or financial assistance, these people deserve it.

"They have huge expenses and have the best people who are so committed and good at what they do. They save lives every single day of the week."

When I rang Graham for this interview he was in the middle of filling out his application to volunteer at RACQ LifeFlight Rescue.

"I'm happy to do anything they want - clean the crew room, clean the toilets, whatever is necessary," he says. "Any way I can pay them back is still not enough."

That sentiment is shared by another Bundaberg resident, Dale Rethamel, whose three-year-old son Jack required aeromedical transport after he stepped in a pit of hot coals and suffered terrible third-degree burns to his left foot.

A three-year-old Jack Rethamel in 2013 at the time of his accident.
A three-year-old Jack Rethamel in 2013 at the time of his accident. contributed

Dale and his young family were having a holiday at Baffle Creek, about 90km north of Bundaberg. A fire on the beach had been covered in sand but it was still lethally hot the next day when little Jack inadvertently stepped in it.

While the pain was excruciating for Jack, his parents were undergoing their own trauma because they could do nothing to soothe him.

"There's not a lot you can do for a three-year-old as far as pain relief is concerned," says Dale, who still gets emotional when he talks about that day in May 2013.

"I reckon he screamed for about two weeks."

Jack was taken to Bundaberg Hospital by ambulance, but it soon became obvious he needed specialist burns treatment which wasn't available there. The decision was made to put him on a Royal Flying Doctor Service plane to Brisbane.

 

It was like your best mate was flying the plane, that's the feeling you got … They are just champion human beings.

DALE RETHAMEL, JACK'S DAD

 

By midnight that same day he was being treated at the Royal Children's Hospital, and the long recovery process began.

"The crew of the RFDS plane were unbelievable," Dale recalls.

"The pilot came back and had a talk to him about going up to see the stars. It was like your best mate was flying the plane, that's the feeling you got.

"The nurse did a fantastic job keeping Jack calm. He even fell asleep for a bit.

"They are just champion human beings."

Like Graham, Dale wants to get the message out that both the Royal Flying Doctor Service and RACQ LifeFlight Rescue rely heavily on donations, and the new Aeromedical Base being built at Bundaberg airport needs public support.

Jack Rethamel today, totally recovered from his accident.
Jack Rethamel today, totally recovered from his accident. Contributed

Having experienced first-hand the difficulties of a patient transfer on the open tarmac, Dale says the new base can't come soon enough.

It will have joint hangars for the RACQ LifeFlight Rescue helicopter and RFDS plane, waiting room for patients, crew rooms, engineering and training facilities.

Jack has fully recovered. His dad says he's a big, strapping kid these days who loves sport and the outdoors.

"You never ever think you'll need the RFDS," he says. "It's just one of those services running in the background.

"But they're delivering critical patient care, life-saving care, and you don't realise they are out there doing this 24/7."

RFDS and RACQ LifeFlight Rescue need your help to fund the new aeromedical base in Bundaberg so they can continue to save lives, like Graham and Jack. To donate, head here.



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