By TABITHA NERO
THE Sepik river, which winds through East Sepik is 1,100km long, with one hospital serving about half a million people living along its bay, according to Mark Palm, co-founder and president of Samaritan Aviation (SA).
In the not so recent past, it is a norm for people in medical emergency cases to die, but not anymore thanks to the two float planes of SA.
“Samaritan Aviation is a Christian Non-Government Organization (NGO) who has been working in the East Sepik since 2005,”
“This month the Samaritan Aviation is celebrating 7 years of operation in Papua New Guinea (PNG) with 1000 flights from Wewak to the Sepik River completed,” Palm said.
In those 1000 flights, SA has saved thousands by flying them to Boram general hospital in Wewak and by bringing much needed medical supplies to remote aid-posts in the region.
“So this is basically a flying ambulance,” Palm told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) while being interviewed in January this year.
Based in Wewak SA’s main focus is the East Sepik and the Sepik river area where they operate into 39 aid-posts and sub-health centers located on the main river, on the lakes, smaller rivers and near the mountains. They have also served people in remote parts of the Ramu River in Madang.
“Since 2010 we have delivered over 60,000kg’s of medical supplies to the 39 different aid-posts and sub-health centers along the Sepik River and we also bring over medical containers through our partners, Faith In Action, in the US to help strengthen the Boram Hospital and remote aid-posts in the area,” Palm said.
Palm who is a pilot and an aircraft engineer from California, United States (US), co-founded SA in 2000 with his friend Gary Bustin. Palms’ wife Kirsten moved from the US with their three children to Wewak in 2010.
“We deal with all types of emergencies from poisonous snake bites, malaria, tuberculosis (TB), trauma from pig bites, crocodile bites, tribal fighting, villagers falling out of trees and houses and many more,”
“We are focused on medical supply deliveries, community development, medical outreaches to remote villages and flying medical personnel to and from remote health facilities. We are also on stand-by for ocean search and rescue and to assist with disaster relief,” Palm said.
About 40 percent of the flights they do are for women with pregnancy complications. Of the many success stories, Palm retold a story of how SA saved the life of a woman only named as Vivian, who nearly lost her life and her twins when SA came to their aid.
“It was early morning in Wewak, Papua New Guinea when the phone rang. I immediately recognized the urgency in the person’s voice as he spoke. From my experience, whenever I heard that tone it meant that someone was dying.
The man on the other end of the phone was Daniel, a Community Health Worker (CHW) in Kanduwanam village, which is located in the lower Sepik River. He told me he ran 30 minutes and climbed a coconut tree to get phone reception. He quickly filled me in on the emergency at hand.
A young mother had a breached birth and was unconscious. A medical worker from a village a few hours upriver had come to Daniel’s village and was pleading for help.
I rushed out of the door and headed for the haus sik (hospital) in town to pick up a nurse and a birthing kit. The 25-minute flight felt like an eternity as I thought about the patient’s condition and wondered if she would still be alive when we arrived. Upon arriving I circled the Sepik River surveying for logs, debris, fishing nets, canoes, crocodiles, and sand bars so as to not hit something and damage the plane on landing. After touching down on the River, we taxied up to the muddy bank.
A large crowd had gathered — a floatplane is not something the people in the village see every day. The villagers brought the young lady to the airplane in a boat, and I could tell right away by the expression on their faces that the situation was dire.
It took three of us to load her limp body onto the stretcher and place her in the plane. She was completely unresponsive. I could tell that her only chance at surviving this was going to be emergency surgery at the hospital.
After the short flight, we landed in Wewak and took her unconscious body on the bumpy ambulance ride to the hospital. Upon arrival, Vivian was rushed into emergency surgery.
Vivian’s husband Jerry felt that his baby was probably dead before we came and that his wife was likely going to die as well. As we didn’t have space on the plane for Jerry he had to make his way to Wewak the long way via canoe to the road in Angoram and then a Public Motor Vehicle (PMV) to town, He was so sure that his family was dead that upon arriving at the hospital a couple of days later he went straight to the morgue. Not finding the bodies of his loved ones, he made his way to the maternal recovery area.
He walked in to see his wife alive and holding his twin babies. After an emoGood
Samaritans serving Sepiktional reunion with his family, he came to us and said to my wife Kirsten, I don’t deserve that your God brought you here to save my wife and babies.”
We left the hospital that day praising God for another three lives saved and feeling humbled and thankful for having the opportunity to be a part of it,” Palm said.
“Every time we pick up a mother there is potential for the outcome to not always be what we hope for. One amazing fact is that in the past seven years, only three mothers died after we brought them in. Two died from infection caused by retained placentas and the third was a mother who died at the operating theater while delivering triplets,”
He said all three babies are now alive and have just turned 21 months old.
Funding for SA comes from donors in the US and PNG government grants through a foundation.
“I think the PNG government has done a great job as far as partnering with us to offer this service at no charge to the people,” Palm said.
He expressed gratitude to the East Sepik government for supporting SA with grants for the past 3 years.
“We have hundreds of amazing stories of lives saved and communities impacted through our service to the remote communities and this is very rewarding personally,” Palm said.
By TABITHA NERO