Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Mercy Flights

As I’ve said in countless other blog posts, with the remoteness of the Maluti (name of the Lesotho mountain range) mountains, travel to St. James or other hospitals is often very difficult for many Basotho. So imagine that you live in a village that is hours away from the nearest hospital and you are having a medical emergency. If you don’t make it to the hospital very soon, you will most likely not survive. Travel by regular modes of transportation (car, foot, or horseback) will take too long. What are you going to do? It’s a scary thought, but it’s a reality that many Basotho face everyday.

Unloading a patient
Fortunately, there is another option. An airlift! Mercy flights in Lesotho are provided by the Mission Aviation Fellowship. MAF is an international non-profit missionary group, with it’s Lesotho branch based in Maseru. This group provides medical airlifts to critically ill patients in remote locations and also brings the flying doctor program to isolated regions of the country. With the small size of Lesotho, a plane is able to get pretty much anywhere in about an hour. While this is still not as fast as calling an ambulance in a big city, it’s infinitely faster than the other available options.

The St. James’ airstrip was built back in the late 1960’s. While it is far from a “smooth surface,” it’s practically a paved runway compared to landing strips in some of the more remote areas of Lesotho. The flying doctor service has played a huge part in St. James’ history. There were several times during the past 50 years when St. James did not have a resident doctor for a long period. To give one example, St. James was without a doctor for nearly two years, from March of 1971 to January of 1973.  During this time, St. James was visited by flying doctors, who were brought in by MAF. But these visits only happened on occasion, and most medical care was provided by St. James' staff nurses. The hospital’s matron (head nurse) even performed a surgery via instructions from a doctor in Maseru on a short wave radio! While that’s an extreme example of the ingenuity of the healthcare system here, most remote medical centers that rely on the flying doctor service still operate the same way today.

I might have been standing too close...

Yep, definitely too close. (Do I regret it? Absolutely not)

While working on creating a history of St. James, I came across a very cool aerial photo of the hospital complex from the late 1960’s (roughly the same time the airstrip was finished). I was determined to recreate this photo to show St. James after 50 years. So one day when I heard the plane buzzing the hospital, which the pilots do to alert the staff to make sure there’s not stray cattle on the airstrip, I ran outside with my camera to speak with the pilot. I explained that I wanted to recreate this old photo of the hospital and that I wanted him to take me up in the plane to do so. I of course did this as smoothly as possible, concealing an inner giddiness not unlike that of a 5-year-old boy who has just seen a fire truck speed by. The pilot entertained my idea out of politeness before shutting it down for the half-baked idea that it was. Needless to say, my inner child was crushed. But the pilot was kind enough to take the photo for me! A few days later, I got an email with some very cool aerial photos of the hospital today. The hospital really has grown a lot in the past 50 years!

Click for a full screen version

Thanks to all the folks over at MAF who work very hard to save the lives of countless Basotho. If you are interested, their website gives some statistics on how many flights they make a year. Even though the American healthcare system seems dysfunctional at times, don’t take for granted the blessing of having emergency medical care minutes away, no mater where you are. That blessing seems like something that we could not do without, but people do indeed go without it everyday. 

On another note, I've finished my fundraising for Rome! Thank you so much to everyone who donated and made my YASC experience possible. There are other YASCers preparing to head out next year that have not met their fundraising goal yet. So if you didn't get a chance to donate toward my year, you can certainly donate towards theirs. Sala hantle!

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