Sitting in the new hangar of the Royal Flying Doctor Service at Western Junction, George and Sarah Merridew are reluctant to brag about their accomplishments.
It took some convincing for the modest couple to agree to an article, but with several people contacting The Examiner about their retirement, it was clear the well-respected doctor and accountant were going to be missed.
George and Sarah were both board members of the RFDS, and George was a long-serving anaesthetist at the Launceston General Hospital – a position he also retired from in 2017.
From serving in the Australian Defence Force as a medical officer to helping set up an air retrieval service in Launceston, his contribution to medicine has been significant.
“Medical retrieval means going and getting patients somewhere and taking them to hospital,” Dr Merridew said.
“There were sort of ad hoc retrieval arrangements and they were okay and worked well, but didn’t necessarily work all the time.
“And a suitable system was put into place, and this was no different than what happened in South Australia, which had the first of the fully organised in-house hospital transfer arrangements.”
The couple met during their final year of study at the University of Tasmania in 1972 – George, who was from Devonport, studying medicine, and Sarah, from Hobart, studying accounting.
Since then, they have raised a family and both built up impressive portfolios – Sarah, as a chartered accountant and member on a number of boards, and George in his field of medicine, as well as in the air force.
Looking back at his time with the flying doctors, including his stint as president from 2009 to 2012, Dr Merridew said his greatest contribution was inviting Sarah onto the board.
She had been a partner in Deloitte and sat on company boards from the mid-1990s.
“Sarah had exactly the right background and she agreed to take it on for three months while we found another definitive treasurer and the board was very happy to do nothing except let her continue,” Dr Merridew said.
“It was a properly functioning board and was pretty well up-to-date with the style of governance of the time, but what was very clear was that the regulator requirements for not-for-profit boards were going to become increasingly complicated, and increasing knowledgeable effort would be required.
“Sarah was in exactly the right position to provide that and she engineered the recruitment of a couple of other key members of the board who happened to be women.”
Mrs Merridew said the biggest change in the RFDS since the couple had been on the board was as a result of a generous bequest from a long-term supporter a few years ago.
“He used to come along every year to our annual general meetings,” she said.
“He was a quiet, nice man, and he’d ask questions about what we were planning to do with our money and we always had the intention that we wanted to do a lot more here, just like the flying doctor service does in other states, where they go out and do clinics and dental services in the outback.”
The RFDS was usually associated with rescues, Mrs Merridew said.
“But a lot of it is doing general primary and allied health in rural and regional areas all over Australia. Well, we didn’t have the funding or resources to do that, but we got this fantastic bequest from this man, and we were able to appoint John Kirwan.
“Having someone of his calibre and experience with the health system here has just been an absolute game-changer for us.
“He’s able to attend the national CEO meetings, and he’s there as an equal, not just, ‘someone from Tasmania’. It’s enabled us to look at setting up this dental service and we’re doing non-emergency patient transfers as well, we’re providing allied health services.
“Having John as the CEO has been fantastic and it’s really just raised the bar of what we can do.”
Sitting on the RFDS board was the first time George and Sarah worked together in a professional capacity.
“George had been a doctor working in hospitals and on-call and I was a chartered accountant working in an office and running around looking after the girls,” Mrs Merridew said.
“It’s quite funny, it’s the first time we’ve been involved in the same organisation, sitting around a board table.”
Dr Merridew graduated in medicine in 1972, and began his full-time anesthesia practice in 1979.
He was a Royal Australian Air Force medical officer from 1975 to 1984 and worked as a specialist anaesthetist at the LGH from 1986 to 2008, and then as a visiting medical specialist from 2008 to 2017.
While serving in the Australian Defence Force, he was deployed to Rwanda, Bougainville, East Timor, Bali and Iraq.
In 2002, he was involved in the medical evacuation of 62 patients from Denpasar after the Bali bombing.
The Merridews are now looking forward to retirement – spending time at their beach house at Swansea and travelling.
“We’ve booked a trip for next year for about six weeks and then we’ll figure it out after that,” Mrs Merridew said.
“And we'll maybe get a dog.”