Retiree alive and fishing

THANKFUL: Cliff Packham wouldn't be alive today if it weren't for the support of the Royal Flying Doctor Service.
THANKFUL: Cliff Packham wouldn't be alive today if it weren't for the support of the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Contributed

BEFORE his heart stopped beating, Cliff Packham had a successful morning fishing mackerel in a remote spot off the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Heading back to a tiny fishing resort on Sweers Island he said to his two mates he wasn't feeling well then collapsed to the ground.

"I was dead - no heartbeat, no pulse, no breathing,” he said.

Cliff has no memory after that, but remembers waking up in the Townsville Base Hospital and being told he was lucky to be alive.

In Cliff's circumstances, if one link of the chain of events on that day had been missing, he wouldn't be around today.

His two Darwin mates that were with him both happened to know first aid, one a former NAVY commander who was quick to jump into action, and the isolated fishing resort had a working defibrillator.

But, Cliff will tell you the most important thing was the aid he received from the Royal Flying Doctor Service, which was able to land on the remote spot during "dark and difficult” conditions and transport him to vital care.

Now, about four months on from his near-death (or actual death) experience, Cliff shared his story in hopes it would help raise awareness for the imperative service the Flying Doctors' provides.

After 25 years of dedication to the same workplace in Wollongong, Cliff chose early retirement in 1999.

He jokes it was the "call of the wild” that urged him to hit the road and travel Australia.

"My email address is the wandering fisherman, and that's pretty much what I do,” he said.

"I have a slide-on camper and 16-foot boat and I wander around Australia fishing in all sorts of remote places.”

The Sunshine Coast in Queensland has been somewhat of a base for the past 10 years, until he finds out "where the fish are biting” and heads off again.

He can't tell you exactly how many kilometres he has driven since retirement, but twice he has travelled the east coast of Western Australia, driven through the Kimberley, across the Territory and down the remote north-east coast of Queensland.

Cliff is experienced in travelling to isolated areas and said he always took precautions in case something were to happen.

"I always carry an EPIRB. I guess it is in the back of your mind something could happen,” he said.

"I had regular check-ups each year, and this just came out of the blue.”

Cliff had finished a few days fishing the Albert River near Burke Town, with two friends before they chartered a flight to Sweers Island to chase mackerel.

"It was on our third day, and we were walking back to our little hut accommodation on the beach and I said to my mates, 'I am not feeling too good',” he said.

It was hard to put into words how he felt in those few seconds before he collapsed.

"I suddenly felt very lethargic... I can't say I had chest pains, just a feeling of being very unwell. There was no pain,” he said.

Cliff describes what happened next as being extraordinary.

"It's more than luck, I am absolutely astounded,” he said.

"Because A, my friends knew what to do. B they had a defibrillator on the island. They had one for 10 years but I was the first one to need it, and C, the flying doctors were able to come from Mt Isa and land on this little tiny island in dark and difficult conditions. They stabilised me on the ground, then got me to specialist care in Townsville hospital.”

Cliff believes there is a misunderstanding about how vitally important the RFDS is to outback Australia.

"I don't think people are aware of the invaluable service they provide,” he said.

"Or the cost involved for them to provide those services - it's largely funded through public donation and not through government support.

"I think it's vitally important people understand they need our help to continue that service.”

So far, Cliff has recovered well, but to say he has itchy feet to hit the road and wet a line would be an understatement.

It's mandatory in Australia to have your licence suspended for six months after having a cardiac arrest.

"So I have been grounded,” he said.

"My boat licence is counted in the same as my car licence, so I can't drive a boat or a car. I am counting down the days until the first of April when I get my licence back.”

His first trip is already planned and he is heading back to the Northern Territory.

Like a true fisherman Cliff didn't reveal his secret spots, but explained where some of his favourite trips had been.

"For fishing I would say the western side of Cape York in Queensland is hard to beat,” he said.

"Then for scenery the Duke of Orleans Bay is tremendous. There are too many places in Australia that are outstanding.”

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Topics:  back from the dead cardiac arrest fishing flying doctors gulf of carpentaria rfds sweers island

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