Life-changing cardiac testing travels around QLD in Heart Trucks

Heart Trucks

One of the unique challenges of the geography of our wonderful country is its sheer size – especially in a massive state like Queensland.

Many rural communities face the dilemma of having to drive hours into the nearest large city to access some of the basics that those in urban centres take for granted.

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Getting any kind of healthcare outside of a GP visit can be nearly impossible, and this is an issue that Heart of Australia (HoA) has been tackling for a decade now.

A unique specialist medical organisation, HoA is in the business of bringing healthcare to rural, remote and First Nations communities across Queensland, bridging the gap for those who can’t access it themselves.

Their mighty Heart Trucks are on the front line of this task. A five-strong fleet now, they travel to different locales on a monthly schedule to offer cardiology services to their patients.

The fleet consists of two Kenworth K200 prime movers (Heart 1 and Heart 2), the small but sturdy Heart 3 – an Isuzu FSD260 – a DAF XF 530 prime mover (Heart 4), and the newest member to the fleet, Heart 5, also an XF 530.

Each of the trailers pulled by the Heart Trucks carry the equipment needed for cardiology check-ups as well as private clinic rooms, a testing room and reception, while Heart 3 and 5 also house specialist equipment for gynaecology services and a world first battery-powered CT scanner respectively.

The battery-powered CT scanner inside Heart 5

The organisation was built from the dream of one Dr Rolf Gomes, who founded HoA in 2014 with one truck, three cardiologists and the support of foundation partner Arrow Energy.

Heart of Australia head of operations and business development Ewan Wylie says the issues faced by remote local communities were vital to consider when the company was first founded.

“There’s quite significant disparities in health equity between the regions and metropolitan centres, and it’s certainly multi layered,” he says.

“When we look at the geography, it’s not just a matter of travelling that distance. It’s time away from your farm, it’s time away from work. 

“It’s time away from family, anyone that’s a carer, anyone that doesn’t have the ability to travel, if they’re mobility challenged. 

“It doesn’t matter that the hospital accepts them in Rockhampton, they can’t get there.

“So now, we’re getting up towards 35 or 36 communities, as of March this year, that we will be routinely servicing with specialist services.

“And while we focus primarily on cardiology, what we’ve found is as we get out to these communities, it’s quite easy for us to add on additional services. So, we’re also doing endocrinology, gynaecology, gastroenterology and neurology. 

“It’s ended up being quite a suite of specialist services. And the main thing that the trucks enabled us to do is it enables us to take out not only the doctor to these communities, but also their full toolkit.

“That allows us to do a lot of the diagnostic work up in community.

“Our trucks have travelled over 984,000 kilometres. We’ve kept track of these figures from day dot through the specialist programme, we’ve saved our patients 37 million kilometres in travel. And we’ve seen over 17,000 patients now.”

Expert care is brought to remote communities via a truck

Custom made for the road

Running an organisation as ambitious as HoA doesn’t come without its challenges, but there are few issues Dr Gomes and his team can’t solve without the help of their partners.

While it has previously received funding from the federal government, which helped to create Heart 4, and the state government, its major partners have helped to provide some of the real heavy gear.

HoA has been supported by PACCAR Australia since its inception, with the vehicle manufacturer providing all four of the DAF and Kenworth models in use. 

Toyota similarly provides the support vehicle fleet which services and provides supplies for the trucks when they’re out in action.

But, without the Varley Group, the Heart Trucks wouldn’t exist at all.

Varley is a proud advanced engineering and manufacturing company which works with HoA to custom-build the trailers for all of the Heart Trucks. It takes on specialist jobs, and building trailers which contain clinic rooms and the ability to battery-power a CT scanner certainly fall under that umbrella.

Varley has also been a partner of HoA since the start, a point which Varley general manager Stephen Moss holds with pride.

“We’re exceptionally proud to be able to be given the opportunity to work with a company like Heart of Australia,” he says.

“We’ve had a relationship for a decade now. It’s been 10 years since we’ve delivered Heart 1, which was an overwidth mobile cardiology clinic. 

“And since then we’ve delivered a further three units, all based on our in-house, Varley B-double trailer design.”

The steps to even beginning the process of designing these specialised trailers requires not only consultation with the trucks’ manufacturers, but a coordinated effort from the engineering team to get designing and planning.

Heart of Australia founder Dr. Rolf Gomes stands with Heart 2

HoA will outline what they need from the trailer, and Varley will endeavour to make it happen.

“We have our in-house engineering team of mechanical and electrical engineers look over the weights and measures and see what we can achieve and push the boundaries as far as we can,” Moss explains. 

“This is whilst ensuring that all times we made them within any relevant ADR, Australian Design Rules, and therefore compliant. 

“Our design is a Varley design, so we hold compliance for that B double trailer design ourselves. We build it from the ground up essentially. 

“We turn our customer’s expectations into a commercial reality so they can put them on the road.

“It would be reasonable to expect a three-month initial consultation phase, and then it’s an approximate 12 month build for the full construction of that B double trailer. 

“From getting the axles in, the steel to do the scale, and 12 months through to handover to the customer, whereby it can go into service. 

“The unique nature of the HoA operation and some of the things they’ve put into the vehicle means we’re always collaborating with suppliers.”

Heart 5 comes alive

The most challenging and demanding truck of the bunch was Heart 5, courtesy of its world first battery-powered mobile CT scanner.

This gives HoA the ability to conduct X ray and radiology services while on the road, something that no other medical organisation can currently do.

Many small communities don’t have the electrical infrastructure to host something as complex as a mobile CT scanner, but Heart 5’s design means this is a non-issue.

“This truck can come in, park in the middle of the main street, no requirements, docking requirements, or electrical or infrastructure requirements from the community other than a flat level space to park, and we can do CTs,” Wylie explains.

“The CT service that we’re providing is actually quite advanced. We’re also doing contrast CTs and cardiac CTs. 

“And typically, you do need to be in a fairly major regional centre to be able to access a lot of that stuff. 

“Certainly, in Townsville, Cairns and Rockhampton you can get these services, but we’ve been able to take that out to extremely remote communities, and we’ll be doing those kind of services potentially in the north west this year.

“Our new trucks going forward will also include this CT technology. A big thing that it’s going to enable for rural and remote Australia is also access to lung cancer screening, which kicks off in Australia on July 1, 2025. 

“At the moment all the stats are that people living in rural and remote Australia have higher rates of lung cancer, have typically lighter presentations and higher mortality rates, because they don’t have access to that early detection.”

The Heart 4 trailer transforms to almost double its rolling size offering medical rooms and technology for patient treatment

Moss says that the idea for carting a CT scanner around in a trailer was brought to Varley directly from Dr Gomes.

While it was no doubt a challenge to conceptualise, its creation is a feat of engineering that the company is extremely proud of.

“Creating Heart 5 was really about how we could not only generate but then store sufficient power off grid to be able to cope with the peak demands of the of the CT scanner,” Moss explains. 

“It is done through a series of solar lithium batteries and significantly sized UPS system onboard that B double. We’re trying to provide as many scans as we can, for it to be able to provide a good service. 

“There’s no guarantee of sunshine, so there is the backup generator if required on board. So, both the A and the B trailer have a generator on board. 

“The CT is housed in the B trailer, which can operate independently of the A trailer, if required and does so.

“Outside of the power requirements, the HoA model is to provide as many specialist health services in a rural environment as it can do. 

“We have additional consultation rooms in slide out pods to provide those additional services. 

“Dr Gomes calls it a pod within a pod, the Russian doll effect is the terminology he would use, where we’re just pushing pods out and then pushing pods out within pods to create the required space to provide those additional consultation rooms and therefore the extra health service in a mobile environment.”

On the road

Lucy Thomas is one of the drivers of the Heart Trucks, recently re-joining HoA in October for her second stint with the organisation.

She’s currently driving Heart 2, a Kenworth K200 configured as a B double combination. While she started life in transport as a bus driver, getting behind the wheel of a Kenny is always a highlight.

Thomas has driven road trains through the outback and taken on farm jobs during grain season, but nothing has been quite as unique as driving for HoA.

Heart Trucks
Heart 2 heads out for its next destination bringing a message of support and hope

“I love Heart 2 it’s a great truck, it’s got a lot of character,” she says.

“I like to keep it clean. It’s a bit dirty at the moment because of the rain but I like to get out there and polish the wheels. 

“I’ve got the electric buffer to get stuck into the fuel tanks and the bulbar.”

The schedule required for driving for HoA is somewhat unique, with Thomas driving the truck out to remote communities in Dalby, or Stanthorpe, or St. George, and returning back to Brisbane by car while the doctors do their work.

She’ll then be driven back to take the truck to its next location – it typically works out as an eight day on, six day off schedule.

Heart Trucks
The mighty DAF XF is the first thing people see when Heart 5 rolls into town

Thomas says being able to experience the local communities is one of the best parts of the job.

“It’d probably be a bit harder if I was on the road all the time. They really look after the work/life balance of the drivers, letting us come home and have a break for a while and return. 

“There’s lots of opportunities to get in the car and have a bit of a drive around the talk to the locals. 

“I’ve joined a Facebook page for St. George locals and told them we’re there, come and say g’day if you want.

“What I find most rewarding is when you’re dealing with patients directly, assisting them and helping them or even just coming into the clinic and having a bit of a chat with someone in the waiting room. You see that sense of appreciation you give. 

“Some people have said ‘if it wasn’t for the Heart Truck I wouldn’t be standing here today’. It’s such a good thing to be a part of. 

“We were in Kulpi, and it was so hot. I walked out of the motel and I was going to go down for the pub for dinner. 

“One of our sponsors came out and said ‘oh I’ll shout you dinner’, and so we did. It was a lovely encounter, meeting these really genuine people.”

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