High-flying health hero

When Palm Lake Resort Ballina resident John Mickan chose to study medicine instead of dentistry, he probably didn’t imagine a future travelling hundreds of kilometres to treat injuries and deliver babies. But when the Aussie outback is your clinic, it’s all in a day’s work.

Born in 1929 in the rural South Australian town of Maitland, but raised and educated in Adelaide, Dr John Mickan AM knew he wanted to practice medicine in the country – it just seemed more interesting. After graduating from university in 1953, he moved to Port Augusta and went into practice with two other doctors, Dr John Thompson and Dr Robert Cooter. Just a couple of years later, the trio were approached by John Lynch, CEO of the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS), who asked if they would be prepared to help establish a base in Port Augusta. They readily agreed.

“We were very eager to help out, because the people of the outback needed looking after and they weren’t getting the assistance they needed,” says John. “We said that we would work for free until the Royal Flying Doctor Service was able to employ their own doctor. I ended up volunteering for nearly 12 years.”

Once a month, John would board a single-engine Auster aircraft for a two-day round trip, travelling 700km to Oodnadatta and even further to other towns to visit patients. For the rest of the month, the three doctors would respond to emergency calls for flying doctors, as well as treating local patients at their Port Augusta practice. John adds that, as a benefit to the ‘dearly loved’ people of the outback, no patients of the RFDS were charged for treatments.

“We would just have to leave the practice when we got an emergency call, but as our practice got busier and busier we couldn’t always drop everything and go,” says John.

Among the other challenges he faced as a Flying Doctor, John says the plane’s landings were particularly hairy. Most often using paddocks, sometimes at night, the pilot would aim for a burning tyre at the end of the ‘airstrip’, using the smoke to determine wind direction. In the darkness, the headlights from three cars – one at the beginning and one at the end of the airstrip, with another a third of the way along – would show the pilot where to land.

“If we hadn’t landed by the lights of the third car, we would have to fly around and try again,” John explains.
But with all of the challenges, John says there were plenty of joys, too. Once, he flew four hours to Oodnadatta to assist with an obstructed labour – when the baby was finally delivered, the relieved mother named him “John”.

“I was always happy to do the work because the people of the outback are wonderful people,” says John. “It was a big part of my medical life and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it – I can’t speak highly enough of the people involved.”

After leaving the service, John continued to work as a doctor, moving to Adelaide in 1975 where he continued to assist with surgeries despite being ‘retired’. When his wife of 36 years sadly passed a few years ago, John visited Palm Lake Resort Ballina at the behest of his son, a Ballina local.
“I signed up the very day I came to visit,” says John. “I moved here in October 2016 and I absolutely love it. There’s always something to do, but you can also just sit around and read if you’d prefer. The weather is also a lot nicer up here than in Adelaide.”