How Tina Turner saved more lives than me in the town of Tara

It was 3am on a Sunday morning in the operating theatre of Tara District Hospital sometime in the spring of 1978. 

As I placed a suture, the radio announcer’s voice gave way to the energy, rhythm and dynamics of Tina Turner and Nutbush City Limits.

A call had interrupted my sleep around two hours earlier with a request from the police that I proceed to the scene of a single vehicle accident about 10 miles from town on the road to Dalby.

At that time, Tara was a little one-doctor country town on the Darling Downs of Queensland, with a population of 1300, servicing a rural shire of around 5000.

Less than two years from graduation, I’d applied for and accepted the position of medical superintendent of the hospital with the right of private practice. I knew everyone in town.

Throwing on clothes, I splashed water on my face then set out along the narrow road, avoiding the odd kangaroo startled by my headlights. It was not long before I saw the flashing lights of the police car and ambulance reflected by trees overhead.

The teenage female passenger had been thrown from the vehicle and was conscious but complaining of severe chest pain, with laboured breathing and a rapid feeble pulse.

There was no evident visible source of blood loss, supporting the likelihood of internal bleeding.

With help from the two police officers, the ambulance officer had already moved her onto a stretcher, prudently managing for a suspected cervical spine injury. The driver had a scalp wound (already dressed) but, in spite of his agitation, he appeared to have escaped serious injury.

The ambulance proceeded directly to the hospital with the young man riding up front and the stretcher patient in the back, attended by me, with oxygen and intravenous fluids running as rapidly as could be achieved through a cannula in each forearm.

Back at the hospital, the stretcher patient was X-rayed to exclude pneumothorax then returned to the ambulance, the dextrose-saline having been replaced with O-negative uncross-matched blood, and despatched, attended by a nurse, for a 90-minute journey to Toowoomba General Hospital.

On arrival, the patient would be treated for a ruptured spleen, fractured ribs and a fractured cervical spine – fortunately without any spinal cord injury.

Now I was in the operating theatre, suturing the full-thickness laceration to the scalp of her boyfriend. The radio was playing quietly in the background.

Sitting on the theatre stool, assisted by the hospital matron and going through the motions of suturing, my mind was wandering as minds do in an operating theatre at 3am, when the adrenaline has subsided, and a semblance of order has been restored.

Conversation was minimal, with the matron anticipating my needs before I expressed them. I was musing on the pattern of what seemed to be a recurring weekend experience. I would sleep restlessly, waiting for the phone beside my bed to signal another single vehicle accident on the Dalby road.

There were a couple of hotels in Tara but there was no regular entertainment, and young people needed entertainment. They could travel, and travel they did, then after the trip, the entertainment and the alcohol, they would head for home. Most did not fall asleep at the wheel. Some did. Some did not survive.

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As the lyrics and rhythm of Nutbush City Limits shattered my 3am musings, an idea was born. My mind wandered to Nutbush and a young Anna Mae Bullock …

“You go to the fields on weekdays/
And have a picnic on Labor Day/
You go to town on Saturday…”

That was it! In Nutbush you go to town on Saturday — and I just knew that in Nutbush that would involve music and dancing…

An idea inspired by Tina Turner in the early hours of a Sunday morning materialised over the next few weeks into a reality.

A high-quality Garrard dual turntable, a 500-watt amplifier and a formidable pair of speakers were the basic hardware. We even purchased disco lights.

Some 42 years later, I remember the first night as if it were yesterday. I remember the opening track by Dragon — April Sun in Cuba — with its powerful, measured, punching rhythm.

And I remember how the room exploded with energy when I turned up the volume for Nutbush City Limits.

The venue was the local golf club and following its debut, Thunderbolt Disco provided entertainment every Saturday night until 1am. Once a month we would bring out a live band from Toowoomba or Brisbane and they would play until the sun came up.

The venue was always packed and after just a few weeks, when I had recouped my costs, I handed the disco over to a young disc jockey — a teenage electrical apprentice with a green Sandman panel van.

I moved on from Tara five years later, but Thunderbolt Disco carried on, seemingly with a life of its own for more than 20 years.

Significantly, after the disco’s debut there were no more calls on my phone to attend a Saturday night accident on the Dalby road, fatal or otherwise.

Thank you Tina. You may never have heard of the township of Tara but I think you probably saved more lives there than I did. I will always be grateful for your inspiration.

Note: this narrative reflects actual events but details and juxtaposition have been modified to avoid identifying individuals.

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