I pick up my backpack and dig for my car keys. It will be nice to leave early for a change. It’s 12:30 p.m. on a warm Saturday afternoon and I just completed the last of my three flights for the day.
Of course it’s right at that moment that the flight-scheduling phone begins to vibrate.
Flipping the phone open I answer it.
It’s Jean Thomas, a missionary in Fond Des Blanc. “There’s been an accident,” he tells me, “A Canadian engineer has fallen off of a bridge that is under construction and may have a broken neck and spinal injuries. The accident site however, is more than 5 miles from the airstrip over rough road, and across several rivers.”
“I will get to work seeing if I can arrange a helicopter to airlift him since transporting him over the rough roads to the airstrip will be risky,” I tell Jean.
I spend the next hour on the phone with various helicopter operators, the UN, and the Canadian Embassy, but soon come to the conclusion that it is not possible to dispatch and adequately sized helicopter in time.
Now the only option left is to fly one of our own airplanes there and see what can be done.
Before preparing an airplane for takeoff I make a quick call to Howard, a paramedic friend of mine, to see how quickly he can join me. I also send a driver to a nearby hospital to pick up some medical supplies.
By 2:00 p.m. Howard and I are ready to go. The spine board, oxygen tanks, rescue ropes, and medical bags are loaded in the airplane. With extra fuel on board we depart west towards Fond Des Blancs.
Reaching cruising altitude, Howard and I begin discussing our plan of action through our headsets. We go through possible scenarios until we know for sure we are on the same page.
Thirty minutes later we have the Fond des Blanc airstrip in sight. Flying over I study it carefully making sure it is clear of people and animals. Fond Des Blanc is our most difficult landing strip in Haiti with steep mountainous terrain on both ends and a short, sloped runway. Animals are also frequently left to graze on the grassy strip.
Once I am satisfied the runway is clear, I join the normal approach pattern and a minute later touch safely down on the airstrip. I park the airplane and then watch as a 4x4 Land Cruiser ambulance drives up to the airstrip.
Once the plane has been secured we quickly transfer the medical supplies to the vehicle and jump in. Without wasting any time the Haitian driver speeds away from the airstrip towards the accident scene. Howard and I grip the handles inside the vehicle tightly as we race down the narrow, rough trail at top speed. Animals and people jump out of the way as the ambulance makes its way through small villages with lights and sirens blaring.
About 25 minutes later we roll up to a large clearing where a variety of heavy equipment is parked.
Yelling in Creole to clear a path, we make our way through the crowd until we reach the spot where a man is lying awkwardly on his side, moaning in pain. Howard quickly gets to work assessing his injuries as I check his vitals. It becomes immediately apparent that he does indeed have spinal injuries in his lower neck, and possible fractures in his right shoulder and collarbone as well. He also has several large abrasions on his head, but the bleeding has mostly stopped. Anywhere we touch him however, he screams in pain.
When the initial assessment is over I pass Howard a small vial of morphine and a needle. Once the pain medication starts taking effect the man thankfully begins to quiet down. Howard gets to work putting on a neck collar so we can stabilize the man enough to transfer him onto the spine board. With the help of several bystanders we get the job done but the morphine unfortunately doesn’t quite mask the pain and the man begins to cry out again.
Once he is on the board we work to secure his body. As I work I glance at my watch. Knowing that it will likely take some time to get him back to the airstrip I begin to worry. In Haiti, night operations are prohibited and we are not able to take off after dark. I pray silently that God will help us get this man to the airstrip before sunset.
After what seems like hours we finally have him adequately secured to the spine board. We then carry him out of the river bed, up the embankment and down the trail to the waiting ambulance. It takes eight of us to lift him carefully into the back of the land cruiser.
“We need to keep going,” I tell the driver again, and we work on steadying the patient as the land cruiser continues to snake down the narrow mountain trail.
Pulling out my phone I make a quick call to update my program manager and advise him that I will likely be landing in Port au Prince after dark and will need a waiver approval. You can get approval for landing after dark, but not for taking off after sunset.
When we finally reach the airstrip I quickly delegate tasks to speed up the process of loading and securing.
Climbing up to altitude I look out as darkness settles in all around us. Unlike flying in Canada there are almost no lights to be seen and I now focus on my GPS for navigation.
Approaching the coastline I begin picking out faint lights of small coastal villages.
Thirty minutes later we are on final approach. Dimly lit lights illuminate the runway. I touch down smoothly and taxi to the international ramp. Before shutting down I radio the tower to request an airport ambulance to meet the airplane, as we will likely be waiting quite some time before the medivac jet from Florida arrives.
We carefully transfer the patient from the airplane into the waiting ambulance.
I continue to make calls until I’ve arranged for a different jet to come. Trinity Air Ambulance agrees to fly over but it will be just over 3 hours before they arrive. Howard decides to go with the patient in the ambulance to a nearby field hospital so they can monitor him more closely while they wait.
Aware that the jet will need to land after the Port au Prince airport is officially closed, I get to work contacting the necessary people to arrange for it to remain open. I coordinate with the tower, PAP and Miami control, immigrations, customs, and the Marshaller to ensure that they will all be staying late until the Jet can depart back to Florida. After promising to pay overtime to everyone they happily agree to stay. I then call back Trinity Air to relay the information as well as help prepare the necessary documentation for their return flight.
Once everything is organized I return to the MAF office. As I wait, I reflect on God’s goodness and once again thank Him for providing every step of the way.
The patient was safely transported to Miami where he received the specialized medical attention he so desperately needed. Although he may have a long road ahead of him the doctors expect him to recover.