Attending the AG Society fossil dig against all odds

By Georgie Meredith 26 May 2016
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Despite her severe disability, Eleanor Beidatsch hopes to embark on an AGS expedition to the opal town of Lightning Ridge this August.

THIS AUGUST, 22-year-old Eleanor Beidatsch hopes to fulfil her dream and travel with the Australian Geographic Society to dig for fossils at Lightning Ridge, NSW.

However, the palaeontology enthusiast and biology student from the University at Albany, WA, will face far bigger challenges than most on the outback archaeological expedition: Eleanor was born with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), a rare condition causing progressive muscular weakness.

The disease means she has severe trouble breathing and is unable to move anything but a few fingers and her head from side to side.

“After reading various articles on the Lightning Ridge dinosaur dig, my youngest daughter decided she wanted to go – in her wheelchair, with a ventilator to breathe and a mobile hospital capacity in her old camper van,” said Eleanor’s mother, Karen Winnett.

Although it will cost a huge amount to attend, Eleanor is determined, and has created a fundraising initiative through GoFundMe, a website that allows people to donate as little or as much as they like. 

Money from fundraising efforts will go towards a number of medical necessities, including a van equipped with life support.

“Eleanor needs a travelling hospital,” Karen said. “She needs her bi pap ventilator, a gastrostomy feed line to run into her stomach overnight, and power for her chair to be recharged, as well as specific food requirements.”

What is spinal muscular atrophy?

SMA is a hereditary condition, affecting the nerves controlling muscle movement.  

It deteriorates muscles around the spinal cord and in the arms and legs, as well as those used for coughing, swallowing and breathing.

With SMA, the nerve cells of the spinal cord do not have the genetic programming that enables them to send messages properly to the muscles surrounding the spinal cord. Because muscle cells are not stimulated they become incredibly weak or die from lack of use.

“Ellie’s disease should have killed her two decades ago,” said Karen. “An active and enquiringly mind is in a weak and vulnerable body but one that could fail her any day.”

Lightning Ridge fossil dig

Volunteers search for fossils on a past AGS expedition to Lightning Ridge. (Image: John Pickrell / Australian Opal Centre)

AGS’ Lightning Ridge expedition

In August, the Australian Geographic Society will be taking two separate groups of 20 volunteers to dig and hunt for dinosaur fossils on the opal fields of Lightning Ridge, which produces some of the rarest and most precious fossils in the world.

Guided by leading experts, participants will go to special locations on the opal fields, seeking specimens for the Australian Opal Centre’s globally significant collection of opalised fossils.

The discoveries made on this trip will be added to the Australian Opal Centre’s world-class collection.

Despite the risks and challenges this trip poses for Eleanor, she plans to see it through and, as her mother says, seize the day.

You can help Eleanor attend the expedition by donating here.