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Sit Down With .... A rocky year in reflection for Geraldton Marine Rescue commander Damien Healy

Jessica MoroneyGeraldton Guardian
Geraldton Volunteer Marine Rescue commander Damien Healy at the Marine Rescue building.
Camera IconGeraldton Volunteer Marine Rescue commander Damien Healy at the Marine Rescue building. Credit: Jessica Moroney/Geraldton Guardian

Marine rescue volunteer work involves a lot of uneasy boat rides, emergencies at a moment’s notice and the odd bout of sea sickness, but one commander has a handle on it all despite a number of rocky health issues along his personal voyage.

Despite a whirlwind of health issues, Damien Healy continues to volunteer at Geraldton Marine Rescue and work full-time. Passionate about diving, boating, spearfishing and footy, the 46-year-old serves the community because he likes to know there would be someone to help him in an emergency.

One of the most pressing missions for Mr Healy and the fellow marine rescue team is saving their base at Point Moore, which is at risk of being eaten away by an eroding shoreline. Mr Healy is in talks with the council on where to move before the fast moving coastal erosion sweeps over.

Born in Perth and living in Melbourne, Darwin and Hong Kong before settling in Geraldton, Mr Healy’s first career started in 1998 as a customs officer at Australian Border Force, working in Geraldton, Fremantle, Canberra, Solomon Islands and Port Headland for 16 years.

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Now, he is a wharf supervisor at the Mid West Ports Authority and has volunteered for Geraldton Marine Rescue for about seven years.

Mr Healy said his experience in Customs had complemented his marine rescue tasks. He was involved in busting the Abrolhos Island trafficking scheme, which could have seen the more than 900kg of cocaine, ecstasy and ice enter the State.

“We went there at night and had to use a lot of the Customs training I had to board vessels at sea and search the yacht,” he said.

“The next day we bought four police officers back to the boat and long story short they ended up finding a tonne of drugs buried at one of the islands out there.

“In all my time in Customs, that’s the sort of stuff we’re looking for and then I had to be at marine rescue and stumble across over a tonne of it buried at a beach.”

Passionate about football, Mr Healy dedicated his spare time running the league and team managing as the president on the board of the Railways Football Club.

An operation several months ago put Mr Healy out of action, but that wasn’t his only health bump. It all began in 2014 during a football match when he got knocked hard in the cheek and blew his eye socket. Mr Healy said an X-ray discovered a non-concerning thickening of his skull.

Moving on, one weekend earlier this year saw Mr Healy attacked outside his home by a neighbour.

“There was a couple of occasions where they had me pinned down and I couldn’t defend myself,” he said.

Police told Mr Healy to get an X-ray done to check for broken bones, which he did. The scan revealed the thickening in his skull was a tumour. Mr Healy said the tumour was benign but would have kept growing, affecting his strength, co-ordination, balance and speech.

“Over time people think it’s old age,” he said.

Mr Healy played his 100th football game before he underwent surgery to remove the tumour, which he is still managing fatigue from today. The surgery involved removing a large chunk of his skull, grinding it down and gluing it back to on, leaving a scar that runs from the front of his ear and over his hairline.

“I woke up with the biggest headache I’ve ever had in my life,” he said.

In 2021, Mr Healy was faced with another health crisis, when he discovered blood in his stool and experienced unusual stomach pains. He was told for some time his symptoms were haemorrhoids.

But eventually, Mr Healy was booked in for a colonoscopy, which discovered three giant polyps growing inside his bowel when he was 45, one containing a tumour 1mm away from the bowel line.

Mr Healy said if he waited until he was 50 to have a colonoscopy, the cancer would have spread and become life-threatening.

“The worst thing about the colonoscopy was I still delayed it, even though I knew something wasn’t right,” he said.

Mr Healy urged the community not to delay booking a colonoscopy and see a doctor if they noticed any unusual health symptoms.

On the volunteer front, Mr Healy recalls his first rescue mission back in 2016, which involved two scuba divers searching for crayfish on African Reef, 25km off the coast of Geraldton. Mr Healy said one diver surfaced for air and realised the boat’s anchor rope had snapped.

“When they were in the water a storm front had come through and the chaffing on the reef had snapped the line,” he said.

“He saw the boat was on the other side of the reef so he dropped all his gear and chased the boat for an hour and the half.

“When he finally caught it he got on board exhausted and by the time he went back to find his mate it was dark.”

A scuba diver himself, Mr Healy’s instinct told him the lost diver would know to swim to shore, which he did.

In February 2020, Mr Healy attended Kangaroo Island in South Australia with a WA crew to help with the bushfire recovery that burnt 211,474ha of land. Volunteering to clear and rebuild fences for weeks on end, he said helping the clean-up was satisfying and rewarding.

Not all emergencies end in successful rescues. Last year Mr Healy recalled a mission to find what they well knew would be a body near Lucky Bay.

“Two brothers snorkelling got into trouble. One of them made it back to shore and went out on a kayak to try to help and he lost his paddle and his brother,” he said.

“He knew his brother had gone, so we were tasked with going out and finding him.”

Just four months after his brain operation, Mr Healy is back in action and on the water. His only restriction, he says, is driving heavy haulage vehicles and dealing with fatigue symptoms.

While Mr Healy recovered from surgery, he still managed to remain on the Marine Rescue radio every day from home.

“There’s no pressure, and volunteering is pretty cool,” he said.

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