bmag Brisbane Person of the Year candidate Justine Powell swapped a nursing career in a hi-tech teaching hospital to join the Royal Flying Doctor Service and she’s never looked back.

Caring. That was the word friends, colleagues and loved ones universally used to describe Justine Powell, a flight nurse with the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) and the first candidate nominated in 2013 for the bmag annual Brisbane Person of the Year Award. As nurse manager for RFDS Powell, 42, manages a team of 14 nurses but she also clocks up an average of about 7000 to 10,000 kilometres a week as she’s called out to medical emergencies in regions throughout Queensland and accompanies patients in transfers to the city for treatment.

On any given day she may spend up to 12 hours holding the hand of an anxious patient during long and often lifesaving journeys. Powell was born in Australia but raised in Britain. When a backpacking trip in 1989 brought her back to her country of birth it inspired her dream to work with the Royal Flying Doctor Service.

She left her job as a nurse and midwife in a central London teaching hospital to work in the outback of Alice Springs and then Rockhampton to give her the skills she would need for the RFDS. “I think [the RFDS is] such an icon, and it’s so different to what I had been used to. It’s helping the people who most need it, in the remote areas or on the coast, and it really utilises all my skills that I trained long and hard for,” Powell says from her base at Brisbane Airport.

According to Powell, a flight nurse must be paramedic, midwife, community health educator, counsellor, child health nurse, radiographer and co-pilot. But she assures me it’s worth all the education and training, especially when a life is saved. “There have been cases that you think ‘gosh, I really made a difference’.” Like the time Powell was called out to Emerald where a man had been caught in a harvester: “We were unsure if we would be able to save him and his leg. Subsequently he did have his leg amputated but he is married and has had children now and is living a full life,” she says.

Mark Bell, RFDS Brisbane base manager, believes Powell is an excellent ambassador for the Royal Flying Doctor Service. “Our staff deal daily with quite confronting and horrific situations. They have to be mentally prepared for that; every day is a challenge and then to have to do it in a moving aircraft – some patients have never been in an aircraft. Justine is very good at assuring them.

In recent years, the situations in 2010 and 2011, the floods and Cyclone Yasi emergencies, she has certainly gone over and above, extending her hours, [working] 16 to 17-hour days to ensure the job gets done.” Powell plays a key role in the Flying Doctors’ response to emergency situations, including the recent floods in Bundaberg and Rockhampton, and she was instrumental in evacuating the Cairns hospital during Cyclone Yasi.

“It was intense,” she explains. “Getting the babies out was a great relief. Ours was the last plane [out] before they shut the airport. Our aircraft only have two cots but we had to get 12 babies out, so we topped and tailed them so we could do four at a time. Some mums couldn’t fly with their babies and had to stay to protect their homes; it was a heartbreaking decision to have to make and I admit I had a little tear [at the time], but in the aftermath of it all I cried tears of relief that we had saved everyone.”

Powell was not only concerned about the patients during that stressful time, she was also mindful of her staff’s morale and wellbeing. “Organising additional crews, keeping up morale, making sure everyone had meals, and just being out there on the tarmac was really important to me to make sure everyone was OK. I was really mindful that my team’s houses were affected and I had to make sure people could also get home to protect their own
homes and babies.”

Such dedication can play havoc with personal relationships. “I was single for a long time because it does impact on your personal life. You can’t make plans on the days you are rostered on because there are no guarantees on your hours. I have had a few partners not understand that. You work 12 hours a day and you are in very extreme circumstances and if your partner doesn’t understand, it makes life difficult. But I made this choice for my life.”
And she has found love can blossom even with her demanding career. Powell is currently dating RFDS pilot James Williams.

“The good thing about James and I is that he gets it and if I don’t turn up for dinner, he doesn’t get upset,” she says. Williams explains why the relationship flourishes: “Jus has this soft and gentle touch with everyone she comes in contact with. I see a long-term future for us because we love what we are doing. Even though it is our profession, we both joined the RFDS to protect people and provide a level of safety.”

After 12 years in the service and thousands of hours spent in the air, the experienced flight nurse is most proud of the amount of babies she has helped deliver, although she’s long lost count she estimates it’s in the hundreds. “I think it’s such a special time and a privilege, I am still in touch with women whose babies I delivered years ago, and some even name their baby after you – a couple of kids have middle names after me and I think ‘oh poor child’, lucky I don’t have a long and difficult name.”

RFDS is celebrating 85 years of serving Australia in 2013.