Project flying sick children from regions for medical treatment resumes after coronavirus hit


New South Wales non-profit organisation Little Wings grounded most of its flights due to the impacts of coronavirus, but emergency funding has allowed work to resume, helping children in some of the most vulnerable communities.

Amilah D’Ambrosio is a bright and bubbly six-year-old with an unidentified nerve disorder that affects her balance.

“We need to go to the doctor because of my legs. They aren’t strong enough sometimes,” she tells SBS News after landing in Sydney from her hometown of Griffith, NSW.

“We actually don't have a diagnosis yet,” her mother Ines says. 

“It has been a long process: about four-and-a-half years of trying to find out why her body just doesn't work the way it should.” 

Ines D'Ambrosio and her daughter Amilah.
Ines D'Ambrosio and her daughter Amilah.

Amilah is among thousands of critically ill patients in regional and remote communities who need to travel to major city hospitals for specialist services.

But the D’Ambrosio family have been given a helping hand.

Amilah is able to fly to Sydney for free thanks to non-profit organisation Little Wings.

Independent patient advocate Alicia Dunn said Little Wings was “an amazing service” for those in rural areas.

“The number of remote area GPs is decreasing, specialists are decreasing, and people in rural Australia have limited access to specialist services,” she added.  

Alicia Dunn is an independent patient advocate.
Alicia Dunn is an independent patient advocate.

Patient Advocates Australia has received a growing number of complaints recently about medical shortages in regional areas.

“In particular a lack of mental health services, pain management, home care, aged care and disability services,” Ms Dunn said. 

“One of my current clients was told to move to Sydney for care ‘or just deal with it’.”

Complaints also focus on the quality of care and services in regional hospitals which has led to some clients having to source private services, she said.

“People living in the city would have outpatient access to psychologists, physiotherapists, and counselling.”

“Many of our clients with a chronic illness are not wealthy and decline referrals for essential specialist consultations because they lack the means to afford long road trips.”

“Others are too sick to travel and are daunted by the prospect of a trip to a major city.”

Clare Pearson is CEO of Little Wings.
Clare Pearson is CEO of Little Wings.

Since it was founded in 2012, Little Wings has flown more than 600 children with their families to Sydney for treatment at major hospitals including The Children's Hospital at Westmead, John Hunter Children’s Hospital in Newcastle and Royal Far West in Manly.

Some patients are from Indigenous communities and many are from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

During the coronavirus pandemic, the service shut down when funding, much of it raised by Clubs NSW from bingo and poker machines, dried up.

“In March, after clubs were closed, our funding ceased immediately, we had no financial support and it was a very scary and challenging time,” said Little Wings CEO Clare Pearson.

“We had to make some really drastic decisions.”

Little Wings has flown more than 600 families to receive medical care since 2012.
Little Wings has flown more than 600 families to receive medical care since 2012.

“Little Wings was running up to 20 flights per week, but during coronavirus we cut back to transporting only five or less, only very urgent cases and funded from our savings.”

With most aircraft grounded, and no income to pay for fuel or aircraft maintenance, Ms Pearson began working for no wages several days a week while searching for ways to keep the service going.

Recently, a major bank offered a grant and the federal government has put up emergency funding.

“The government has given us $240,000. We'll see a monthly deposit over six months which really will see our survival over that period of time,” Ms Pearson said.

“As bans on elective surgery have lifted, we have seen an increase in referrals,” she added. 

“Without that support, it could have been quite dire for many of the families that are living regionally.

Without the free service, families like the D'Ambrosios would face a long drive or train trip to Sydney.
Without the service, families like the D'Ambrosios would face a long drive or train trip to Sydney.

A trained psychologist, Ms Pearson took over at the non-profit last year after working in anti-human trafficking roles and running a safe house for child sex victims in Cambodia. She says she understands the challenges faced by underprivileged families.

“Many on low-incomes already have so many hardships and challenges surrounding them,” she said. 

“We fly children that have to sit for six hours linked up for kidney treatments and renal diagnostics.”

“Many regional towns have limited medical equipment. They have limitations on doctors and specialists and sometimes you can do things remotely, but a lot of the time you can't.”

The federal government recently expanded the Telehealth rebate allowing those in remote areas to get medical care on the phone and online. 

Ms Dunn said online medical consultations have helped people in remote areas survive the pandemic.

She called for an indefinite extension of the Telehealth rebate for those in remote areas, including many Indigenous communities, who otherwise might drive many hours to see a GP.

Amilah is now back home in Griffith while specialists continue work on diagnosing her condition.

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits.

Testing for coronavirus is now widely available across Australia. If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

The federal government's coronavirus tracing app COVIDSafe is available for download from your phone's app store. SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments.

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