Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Three Minutes to Spare!

This story is an account of Jason’s experiences on February 2. That was the same day I wrote about in the previous blog called 'A Long Day'. It’s a little late, but he’s been very busy with work! 

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.

We quickly unload the medical supplies and then set off on foot down a narrow trail that leads to a river bed. When we finally spot a large crowd of locals we know we must be at the scene of the accident. 

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.

Once inside I take position at his head to continue holding him stable in anticipation of the long bumpy ride ahead. Averaging 10km per hour I calculate it will take us at least one hour to arrive at the airstrip. As we drive the sun continues its descent. Worrying that we may not reach the airstrip before sunset, I ask the driver to speed up a little. As the vehicle picks up speed, the patient lets out piercing screams of pain. He also begins to vomit so we stop the vehicle to reposition him and give some more medication. 

“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.

Once the pre-flight inspection is complete, and everything is securely fastened I taxi the airplane up the steep sloped airstrip. As the sky continues to darken I glance once more at my watch. It is exactly 3 minutes before official sunset time! I thank God for His providential care as literally three minutes later we would not have been able to depart. 

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.
I radio Base 1 with a revised eta and advise that we will be going straight to the international terminal to await the medevac jet to arrive. 

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.

Then I begin making phone calls to check on the status of the jet. After several calls I am frustrated to find out that the jet has been cancelled due to some dispute with medical insurance. I quickly discover that the patients’ insurance company is requiring blood work, x-rays, and a medical report from a hospital before they agree to send the jet! This seems absurd since it is impossible to obtain these on short notice, and the whole reason for flying the patient back to the United States is for him to get the specialized care he may not be able to find in Port au Prince! 

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.


  1. Wow, thanks for your determination, skills, and prayers Jason! God bless you and continue to keep you safe!

    Love Henry and Jenny

  2. Hey buddy you are a constant inspriation to all of us back at home. The things you do in a day many never do in a lifetime . Be safe and Godspeed .

  3. What an inspiration with what you do in your work. So awesome to read a story like that.

  4. I pray that if that man does not yet know the Lord, he will come to a saving knowledge of Him through this experience.

    May God bless you for the work you do.

  5. I know the man. Yes, he knows and loves the Lord. He is making good progress, but is still in hospital.


  6. Wow! What an amazing account! We know 'the man' personally and know that he will give God the honor and glory for all that you did for him that day. You truly are an inspiration. God bless you and your family.

  7. Wow! What an amazing story! We know 'the man' personally and know that he will give God the honour and glory for all that was done for him. Thank you for your determination in getting him to medical help.

  8. Thank you Jason for helping to save our brother. Only God could have brought everything together the way He did that day.God Bless your work! Gwen

  9. I would like to extend our families gratitude for your instrumental help in assisting Ken in his time of need.
    You are a special person in this world....
    Jason and Denean Heath (Barkman)
    Mission, BC, Canada