After 38 years as a practicing optometrist, and at an age where most are thinking of retirement, Geoff Fitzpatrick continues to fly his light aircraft to outback Queensland to see his patients.
At 61, Geoff is not your typical eye care professional. In fact, you could call him the Flying Optometrist…because that’s just what he flies thousands of kilometres between his three Queensland practices at Maroochydore, Nambour and Kingaroy and occasionally heads to even more remote communities within the Sunshine State.
And although Geoff loves what he does, he says he can’t think of retiring because so many people in these regional and remote areas depend on him.
In a way, Geoff Fitzpatrick is the accidental optometrist. His first love was flying and he almost did become a commercial pilot except for an untimely accident.
Monday morning I’d fly up to Bundaberg and work three days there and Wednesday afternoon I’d fly back to Maroochydore and work the rest of the week there
“My dad was in the RAAF and I grew up in Brisbane near the Amberley RAAF base and used to watch the planes take off and land. Ever since, I held a long term desire to become a pilot and I got a scholarship with TAA (a domestic airline which is now defunct). At the age of 16 I fell off a truck and broke my ankle and had to ring them up to tell them my leg was in plaster. They said that was alright, but I’d have to do another medical, which I failed it,” Geoff recalls.
But he’s not too certain what made him take up optometry at Queensland University of Technology except to say that he thought about medicine, but then decided it was too long a course.
“I wanted something paramedical and dealing with patients so I chose optometry and I met my wife Debbie who was also doing optometry, but I still harboured the desire to fly.
He married Debbie, went to work for an established Brisbane optometrist for a couple of years before setting up his own business in Brisbane. Then, in 1980, shortly after the birth of his first child, daughter Emily, Geoff succumbed to the temptation of flying… without telling his wife.
“I started sneaking off and taking flying lessons without telling my wife. I’d go off before breakfast and tell her I was going off to an optometry association meeting. After about four weeks she twigged and asked me, ‘”where have you been going every Wednesday morning for the last four weeks”?
I said, “as a matter of fact I am going solo at Archerfield this morning and she said ‘Emily (my daughter) and I will never come with you’.”
When the Fitzpatrick family bought a practice at Bundaberg, Geoff continued his flying lessons with the Bundaberg Aero Club.
“We practiced Optometry in Bundaberg (on Queensland’s mid north coast) for about four years. Then we decided to move back closer to our families in Brisbane so we bought a practice at Nambour (on the Sunshine Coast).”
Despite her earlier protestations, one of Geoff’s first flights as a licensed pilot was taking his wife and family (daughter and son) and another optometrist, Vince Robinson and his wife, to an optometry conference at Kooralbyn (64 kms south of Brisbane) from Bundaberg.
“That was in a Cherokee six seater and I was not nervous one bit then. Vince was so enthused by the flight that he learnt to fly as well.
“About the same time I bought the business in Nambour so I would fly between the two practices at Bundaberg and Nambour. Monday morning I’d fly up to Bundaberg and work three days there and Wednesday afternoon I’d fly back to Maroochydore and work the rest of the week there.
“In the meantime, my wife would fill in for a couple of days while I was at the other practice. Then we sold the practice in Bundaberg and a friend of mine, George Rowe, who had a practice at Kingaroy (210 km NW of Brisbane) rang me up and said, ‘how would you like to buy my practice’? It includes a country run to Longreach (central western Queensland).” George had been a flying optometrist between Kingaroy and Longreach for about a year or so, so I bought his practice and acquired the country run and I’ve been doing it ever since, for 21 years”.
Geoff says when he first became a flying optometrist, he hired a Cessna, but that became too expensive so in 1990 he bought his own aircraft – a single engine Mooney 201 which suited him because he could take out the back seats and fit his equipment inside.
It was in this Mooney 201 that Geoff had his one and only brush with death in his many thousands of hours of flying. It was about 7.00pm and he was flying between Longreach and Maroochydore when the engine began to splutter and he heard a loud thump.
“I basically had to find somewhere to put it down. I was lucky as it wasn’t pitch black and I could just see the paddocks below me. I thought I’d land it in a paddock, but in the end I decided to put it on the road but I was a bit unlucky. I landed it beautifully, but managed to hit an “80 KM” sign, otherwise I would have got away with it completely. I wrote my plane off, got out and walked away,” he says, recalling the close shave.
Also, as luck would have it, a couple of guys in a pickup truck pulled up, helped Geoff load his equipment into the truck and took him to the nearby town of Durong where he called the Department of Aviation.
“After that, I acquired a plane with two engines for about five years, but it became prohibitively expensive, so I got rid of it in 2000 and had a lend of a friends Cessna 210 for about seven years. Two years ago I acquired my Mooney 205 which is the same vintage as the one I crashed, but a slightly better model”.
Geoff obtained his commercial pilot’s license in 1993 and began flying renowned ophthalmologist Dr. Bill Glasson and his team to Bedourie, Birdsville, Boulia and Charleville in outback Queensland to treat the indigenous community for trachoma and other eye diseases. But then Dr. Glasson’s team became too large for Geoff to ferry in his single engine plane, so the team now uses a much larger aircraft.
These days, Geoff has practices at Maroochydore, Nambour and one at Kingaroy, which is run by his son Scott. He also has an office at Longreach to which he flies for three days every eight weeks.
“There is a dire need for optometrists in these rural and remote areas. There are a couple of visiting optometrists, but most have retired and one remaining from Rockhampton is about my age and tells me he’s close to retiring. The locals at Longreach do depend on me a bit. I fill a void in those areas”.
Geoff says much of his work is taken up by examining eyes and prescribing glasses. He also has a program where he screens patients.
“In my practices we’ve always referred a lot of patients for things such as glaucoma, cataracts, macular degeneration (MD) and pterygium (a growth over the eye caused by extreme sunlight) which is common in Queensland.
“The folk in regional Queensland are becoming more aware of eye health. A lot are now asking about MD because it is so well publicised now and we are living longer so people are getting it more often. In MD I think there’s an element of UV damage as well and therefore more MD cases in Queensland”.
Asked about the changes in optometry that he has seen in his many years in the profession, Geoff says: “What’s made it interesting is the vast improvement in instrumentation – the diagnostic tools we now have – auto refractors and retinal cameras for taking photographs of retinas. One of the things I did very early in the piece was to cart around a machine to check people’s visual field and I had to find some that were portable.
“One machine I bought I took to Blackall Hospital and the first day I was there I detected a pituitary tumour with it and referred this later to Brisbane and it saved her. That machine was made by Zeiss FDT (frequency doubling technology).
“These days I also cart around a laptop computer which I didn’t cart around before and connect machines to the laptop”.
Geoff is fully aware of how much the communities he services depend on him and he says he doesn’t know what will happen to his patients in regional Queensland when he retires.
“That’s why I’m not in any hurry to retire. I actually quite enjoy what I am doing, but I’m hoping my son will take over part of the practice out west that I do at the moment. There doesn’t seem to be much urge for people to do what I do.”
And just recently, Geoff became a Civil Aviation Safety Authority Designated Aviation Eye Examiner – only the third optometrist to be appointed to the position with more being encouraged to join the ranks.
“It would be nice for some young optometrist who is learning to fly and was looking for a tax deductible reason to do it, because it is quite rewarding and after 21 years of doing it I obviously have quite a lot of friends out there. I see a lot of welcoming smiles in country towns now.
“I encourage any young optometrist to make your hobby become part of your profession. It gets you out of the office and you get more versatile practicing in different situations than being stuck in an office day in and day out…as well as the satisfaction of servicing these remote communities”.