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BRISBANE-based cardiologist Rolf Gomes dreams big.
The 25-metre “Heart Bus” he conceived, built and remortgaged the family home to help pay for, is proof of that.
But when the Queensland Government refused to support a funding proposal for his cardiology ‘clinic on wheels’ long-term — saying public programs were better value for money — it felt like a body blow.
“When Rolf was knocked back by the State Government, it was basically just a kick in the guts, really,” Gomes’ wife, Kylie, tells ABC’s Australian Story tonight.
“Rejection for some people is debilitating [but] for Rolf it has the opposite effect.”
Eighteen months into a pilot program he knew was saving lives, Dr Gomes kept looking for a way to keep his heart bus dream alive.
“It did take the wind out of my sails,” says Gomes.
“A big part of your vision has just been eliminated. But you never know what’s around the corner.”
Salvation came two days before Christmas, 2016, in the form of a million-dollar mystery donor with heart, keen to deliver on the dream of a dead man.
The family told him their late father loved the bush, and knew that at the heart of every bush community was the doctor.
“Their father had also wanted to try to get doctors to the bush, and spent years trying to create a program with the government, but hit brick walls,” Dr Gomes says.
He ran out of time, passing away before he could do it.
“They said ‘we’d like to support you, how does a million toward building the second clinic sound?’” Dr Gomes says.
“I said that sounded pretty good.”
“Not every day does someone offer you a million to build your dream. Like the phoenix … we’ve risen from the ashes.”
TELL HIM HE’S DREAMING
Dr Gomes came to Australia as a child, his parents bringing the family from Calcutta after the death of their oldest son.
“My dad stepped off a plane with $200, four suitcases and four children to come to a country so his kids could have a better life,” Dr Gomes tells Australian Story.
All his parents wanted was for Rolf to do well at school. He duly delivered.
He worked as an electrical engineer, realised he liked “people more than computers” and studied medicine.
A career in cardiology beckoned, and stints working in the bush during his residency saw him frustrated by the limitations and difficulties which meant he couldn’t do as much medically for country people as he could in the city.
When a man injured in a quad bike accident refused X-rays because “I just can’t travel”, Dr Gomes put him in a neck collar, sent him home, and wondered during the night “is this guy going to be able to move his legs in the morning?”
The first seeds of a plan to take specialist services to the bush were sewn.
“Heart disease is still the biggest killer,” he says.
“If you live in the bush away from the city centre you actually have a 44 percent greater chance of dying of heart disease.
“You can’t look at a situation like that and say the way to address that is to maintain the status quo.
“You do something like this because there has got to be a passion for doing something worthwhile. Giving something back to the country which had given me everything.”
Many admired the plan, the drive and the vision. Others told him he was dreaming.
He needed $1 million to set up the bus, another $1 million a year to run the program.
THE HEART BUS
The Heart Bus launched in 2014. By that time Dr Gomes had written countless letters, hit up everyone from the Federal Government down, secured some corporate supporters and sponsorships, and put his own “skin in the game”, remortgaging his family home to the tune of $800,000
“I was in a funny way unencumbered by wealth and reputation. For me the only way was up,” he says.
The bus is fitted with all the specialist equipment of a city practice, and covers 8000 kilometres of outback Queensland a month, visiting 12 regional towns.
In the first six months of operation, Dr Gomes sent nine people off for lifesaving open heart surgery.
It’s now seen about 3000 patients. The drive to Winton might take 15 hours. Patients will drive another couple of hours to meet it.
Ironically, the Queensland State Government which put a one-off $250,000 into the clinic, but won’t fund its expansion long-term.
The million-dollar mystery donation means a second mobile clinic will launch in 2018, with the plan to expand the specialist services beyond cardiology.
“The truth is the program is going to stay one way or another. It; ’s going to get bigger. It’s going to get more expansive, and it can’t be ignored,” Dr Gomes says.
“I do what I do because I really like doing it. I don’t know what people look to achieve in their lives, but if I achieve nothing else, this would perhaps be enough.”
Australian Story: The Beat Goes On airs Monday at 8pm on ABC and ABC iview