Emergency Medevac to Waiki, Papua New Guinea

Photo and text: Svein-Robert Solberg

It is early morning at the MAF base in Papua New Guinea.  I am on a visit from Norway to gain some insight into the service of pilots and airport ground crew and to visit Jan Ivar and Linda Andresen, sent out from Norway to serve here. This tranquil morning is about to be disrupted by the radio operator Charlotte, who comes running toward us…

Another emergency mission

´Jan Ivar, can you take on a flight today? There´s an emergency in Waiki, a small village an hour´s flight into the jungle,´ Charlotte asks.  ´Yes, of course!´ he replies.  He has done this many times before and knows exactly what to do.

He rushes to his car to get his equipment bag.  The pre-flight check is a necessity, and it takes a little time before we can take off.  Safety always comes first.

´How is the weather? Is flying possible?´ There are many hills and valleys here, and the weather can change quickly.  There is often a lot of fog which makes flying impossible.  Fortunately, the weather looks favourable today for the flight to Waiki.

´Do we need a stretcher?´ Jan Ivar asks. Charlotte confirms.  This means that some of the seats in the small aircraft have to be removed before the checklist is ready for approval and the flight can begin.  All this takes 45 minutes.

The motor roars as we take off towards Waiki, with the flight time estimated at 55 minutes.  I see green clad hills and valleys, waterfalls and rivers meandering through the landscape below. It is so beautiful, a delight for the eyes. But the beauty I see below has a downside – the lack of roads to connect the towns and villages.  MAF is important in this isolated country and has its largest base here with 9 aeroplanes and 123 employees, 33 of whom are international staff.

MAF has been flying in Papua New Guinea since 1951. Here, 80 percent of the population live in isolated areas with no transportation network; small planes are the only possible means for those in isolated areas to obtain help and contact from the outside world.

Experienced pilot

We are sitting in a Cessna Caravan airplane, the perfect workhorse for the challenging conditions here that include short and sometimes uphill landing strips, and slippery conditions due to heavy rains.  In the course of only a few minutes visibility can be compromised by heavy fog and rain, and so flying is always a race against time. Safety is key, and Jan Ivar has been delayed or grounded several times because of bad weather.  It is a painful reality that sometimes, due to this, a patient cannot be helped.

MAF has many experienced pilots, and Jan Ivar is one of them.  He worked for Widerøe airline for over thirty years, flying along the challenging coast of Norway, and this is great experience to have had when needing to read the clouds and weather.  He guides the plane with a steady hand.

He has been here before, so I feel safe, but I am apprehensive all the same! ´The weather is good now, but it can change quickly!´ he says, smiling.

We fly through the clouds and see the green landing strip below us.  It is an uphill strip, and I can feel the butterflies in my stomach!  The plane lands, and water and mud fly everywhere. The plane doesn´t stop until we reach the top of the hill, where a colourful crowd of people awaits us.

Margaret and mum

´Mery kam ap sik,´ says our local MAF agent John as he greets us.  The language is Tok Pisin, and he is saying that a girl has been injured. A young girl is lying in the middle of the crowd. She is 8 years old and her name is Margaret.  It is obvious that the people around her are very worried.

´She fell into the fire, and then boiling water fell on her,´ says John as he draws the covering off the girl.  A large burn is revealed on her thigh and back.  Margaret lies very still and is clearly in great pain.

´Can you help her?´ pleads one of the men.  Jan Ivar asks them to cover the wound. ´There is nothing we can do for her here; we have to get her to a health station. Without proper care, this injury could be dangerous; an infection could lead to her death, ´ says Jan Ivar in fluent Tok Pisin.

Jan Ivar gets the stretcher out, and Margaret is helped carefully onto it.  John and one of the locals help to lift the stretcher into the aircraft and Jan Ivar secures it to the floor of the plane.

Margaret´s mother joins her in the plane. Or is it an aunt? Apparently, she has several ´mothers´. Here in Papua New Guinea a person has many ´mothers´and ´fathers´ – your father´s brothers are all your ´fathers´, and all your mother´s sisters are your ´mothers´. This is  an interesting tradition that bonds families together in a unique way. It is said that you need a village to raise a child – this village takes it literally, and this is positive for Margaret, because if you get ill here, you are dependent on the support of your extended family.  At all local health care facilities and hospitals, it is the responsibility of your family to take care of the patient while in care: to provide hygiene, food, help with getting dressed, and so on while the facility provides medicine, dressings and necessary medical help.

Health centre in the neighbouring village

Soon we are ready for take-off.  The landing strip is not long, but Jan Ivar guides the plane expertly into the air.  I turn around to see how Margaret is and her mother gives me a small smile and her eyes glow with gratitude.  Without the plane, her daughter would not stand a good chance of survival.  The flight is not long and after only 10 minutes we are descending to the neighbouring village of Oksapmin.  The same journey would take more than 2 days on foot!

There is a small health care centre here, a few hundred metres from the airstrip. Margaret is carried to the centre, where workers receive us, and placed on a hard bed with no mattress.  The worker lifts the cover, examines the wound and says calmly, ´This doesn´t look good.´  As we leave, Margaret and her mother look at us, tears of gratitude in their eyes.  They are clearly very thankful for MAF´s help.

The conditions of the health centre are very basic, and I voice my concern to Jan Ivar, wondering if this will be good enough to help her.  He assures me that he will be coming back with food and medicine in a few days – ´I´ll check in on Margaret then.´

We get back on the plane and set the course for Mt. Hagen, while I say a quiet prayer for the little girl we were able to help today.  I am sure of one thing: that that short flight could quite possibly make the difference between life and death for Margaret.

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