The first helicopter medical evacuation flight (“medevac”) I ever did was as a copilot back in 1978 or ’79. This was before helicopters were widely used as air ambulances; there were only a handful of such dedicated aircraft in the country. The company I worked for was routinely called by various agencies, and it was not uncommon for us to rip the interiors of our helicopters out so that stretchers or premature baby “isolettes” could be fitted. We did many flights within a 100-mile radius of New York City.
One afternoon, we were called to go pick up a burn victim at a hospital just up the Hudson River a bit. It was a young guy who had deliberately, for reasons unknown set himself on fire. We got there and sure enough, this guy was burned badly. Some relatives were there, and since we’d come with a large, eight-passenger helicopter, they rode with us to New York Hospital’s Burn Unit in Manhattan. All through the flight, the mother kept talking to her son. “Hang on, John. Just hang on. We love you, John. Just hang on.” It was heart-wrenching. At the same it was pretty disgusting. The smell of burnt flesh is not pleasant; it’s not something you forget either.
I called the hospital a couple of days later to inquire about our passenger. The nurse who answered the phone got very quiet. "Oh yes, John," she said softly. "He, ahh, passed away shortly after you brought him in." You could tell they don't like losing people in hospitals.
So at two o’clock yesterday afternoon the power surged on our island, like it does in those B-movies when the warden nods and they pull the huge hinged-metal switch on the wall that sends the juice to the guy in the electric chair. “Uh-oh,” I said. “That’s probably not good.” The power usually doesn't have problems on nice, sunny afternoons. Five minutes later the power went out completely. Almost immediately, my cellphone rang and I was not suprised. As usual, it was Roger, the head of the local power company.
“Bob, I’ve got a problem,” he said, sounding very, very distraught. “One of my guys got electrocuted. He’s still up the pole – the crew can’t get him down. We’re not sure if he’s still alive. Can you fly him to La Ceiba?” Well, sure. We started prepping the helicopter to receive a stretcher. Our local doctor should have been called to the scene; for reasons I'm not sure of, he was not.
As the minutes dragged on, Roger was getting frantic about why I wasn’t airborne and headed his way. He urgently wanted to get the man, Marcos, to a hospital – any hospital. Remember we do not have one of those in Guanaja. Being the stickler that I am (some would say “uncooperative prick”) I told Roger to make sure that the local doctor saw the man, administered proper first-aid and pronounced him stable for flight. The very last thing I want is for us to snatch-up a badly-injured accident victim and have him die on the 45-minute flight to the hospital because of something basic that was not accomplished on the scene but could have been.
Instead of bringing the doctor to the man (which would have been quicker), they took the man by boat to the doctor. We all rendezvoused at the airport about an hour after the accident. Marcos’ injuries were certainly severe. His right foot was nearly blown completely off. His unbandaged left foot was…well let’s just say that his entire skin looked like it had been deep-fat fried. It was not pretty. The doctor checked him over, did what he could (luckily there was no bleeding), administered some pain-killers, started an IV, and we were good to go. Marco was conscious through the whole thing and in quite a lot of pain. I knew that Marco was going to smell bad. Roger warned me, but he did not have to.
(Think we've got enough help?)
We made it down to La Ceiba in 45 minutes. The hospital we were headed to has a soccer field adjacent to it. Someone from the power company told them to meet us there with a stretcher. They did. It was like clockwork. I wasn’t on the ground for more than five minutes. Then I hopped over to the airport for fuel. It was getting late and I was cutting it close again. Even if everything went right I’d be getting back right as it got dark.
In America this would have been no big deal, very routine. But it's not like America here, not at all. The Honduran government inexplicably does not allow emergency flights directly to hospitals by civilian aircraft operators, and I am aware of this. When I shut down I was met by two obviously-pissed airport authorities who lectured me sternly. “In the future, you must come to the airport,” they said. “We can have the ambulance meet you here.” Outwardly, I was all, “Oh no, sir. No, sir! I’ll never do that again.” Inwardly, I was like, “Yeah right, blow it out your ear.” There’s an expression: Sometimes it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. (Just please, dear God do not let them read this.)
So. Nine weeks, nine medevac flights. It’s funny. I’ve never really wanted to be an air ambulance pilot. But it seems like it’s all I do down here now.
WEDNESDAY, November 08, 2006
Roger called from the hospital. Marcos is still in really bad shape. During the night, they had to amputate his left arm and right leg. They’re still trying to get his internal organs functioning again. It is touch-and-go whether he will even live.