Fly­ing mir­a­cle

The good sa­mar­i­tan de­liv­er­ing med­i­cal help to re­mote PNG

Paradise - - Contents -

“Iwant to spend my life help­ing the peo­ple of PNG,” Mark Palm told his fu­ture wife, Kirsten, on their first date, in California.

Not a typ­i­cal way for a 20-yearold to ex­press ro­man­tic in­ter­est, but she ‘signed on’ for what turned out to be the ad­ven­ture of a life­time: run­ning Sa­mar­i­tan Avi­a­tion, a Chris­tian air am­bu­lance ser­vice for re­mote com­mu­ni­ties in East Sepik Prov­ince.

“If we were go­ing to be se­ri­ous about each other, I wanted to get it all out there from the start,” says Palm, 21 years later. “How­ever, it didn’t go down too well at first when Kirsten’s dad learned I wanted to take his daugh­ter away to the other side of the world.”

Palm’s own fa­ther was a min­is­ter who ran a home­less mis­sion, while his grand­fa­ther was a World War 2 pi­lot. As a teenager, Palm de­cided to com­bine the two fam­ily tra­di­tions dur­ing a trip to PNG with his friend Gary Bustin.

Liv­ing in lo­cal vil­lages, the two Amer­i­cans saw the chal­lenges peo­ple faced when med­i­cal help was needed in ar­eas with few roads and fewer run­ways.

“The vi­sion of a free emer­gency ser­vice with a float­plane that could land on Sepik wa­ter­ways came from that trip,” says Palm.

How­ever, it was a long jour­ney to set up Sa­man Balus, as it’s known lo­cally.

Palm re­turned to the US, learned to fly, en­rolled in an aircraft engi­neer­ing school and spent a decade rais­ing money for a retro­fit­ted Cessna 206 – a beloved bush aircraft that can cost $US500,000 or more.

“It’s a lot of money when you’re young and no-one’s ever heard of you,” he says. “But we even­tu­ally man­aged to buy the plane and set up a non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion that’s now sup­ported by the PNG gov­ern­ment and in­di­vid­ual donors.”

Sa­mar­i­tan Avi­a­tion took off in 2010, when Palm, his wife and their three young chil­dren (Sierra, Drake and Nolan) re­lo­cated to We­wak, to­gether with a dis­as­sem­bled Cessna.

Since then, the air am­bu­lance ser­vice has added an ex­tra plane and saved thou­sands of lives by pro­vid­ing emer­gency trans­porta­tion, medicines and equip­ment.

“About 40 per cent of our trips are child and preg­nancy re­lated,” says Palm. “We also deal with trauma, spear wounds, im­mu­ni­sa­tions, search and res­cue, you name it.

“About 225,000 peo­ple live on the 1100 kilo­me­tre Sepik and its trib­u­taries. Most of them would have to travel two to five days to reach the one hos­pi­tal in the prov­ince.

“If you have snakebite or a birthing chal­lenge, there’s no hope with­out the ser­vice Sa­mar­i­tan pro­vides. For us the long­est flight is only 65 min­utes.”

Dur­ing Sa­mar­i­tan’s early days, Palm’s wife took on multi-task­ing with a vengeance. As a teacher, she not only home-schooled the three chil­dren, but also drove the am­bu­lance in We­wak.

“I’d land, Kirsten would be wait­ing in the car with the three kids and she’d take the pa­tients to hos­pi­tal,” says Palm. “I’d then jump back in the plane and take off to pick up an­other sick per­son.”

Sa­mar­i­tan’s op­er­a­tion now in­volves four fam­i­lies, in­clud­ing two pi­lots, two engi­neers, and a med­i­cal di­rec­tor, plus lo­cal staff

and vol­un­teers. A triage nurse han­dles the calls and dis­patches flights.

“Con­tact from more re­mote ar­eas is by ra­dio, while about 60 per cent of call­ers live within range of cell­phone tow­ers,” says Palm. “How­ever, peo­ple some­times have to walk 30 min­utes and climb a tree or hike up a moun­tain to get re­cep­tion.”

After 10 years and more than a thou­sand flights, Palm says he’ll never for­get Sa­mar­i­tan’s first emer­gency. A fran­tic health worker in the vil­lage of Tim­bunke called to say a young mother strug­gling through an ob­structed child­birth had lost con­scious­ness and was on the verge of dy­ing.

“It was early morn­ing, Good Fri­day, 2010,” says Palm. “I re­mem­ber the adren­a­line and ten­sion as we nav­i­gated around rough weather, landed on the Sepik near the vil­lage and rushed An­to­nia back to the hos­pi­tal.”

For­tu­nately, An­to­nia re­sponded to emer­gency surgery and de­liv­ered a healthy baby boy the same day.

“At that mo­ment, I re­alised all the years of strug­gle to set up Sa­mar­i­tan had been worth­while,” says Palm. “The vi­sion was real. We had just saved the lives of a mother and her baby.”

Palm and his fam­ily vis­ited An­to­nia in hos­pi­tal, where they learned she had named her baby Mark.

“I was really moved and hon­oured,” says Palm. “Last Easter, I flew into Tim­bunke again and all those feel­ings came back when

I met baby Mark on his birth­day. He’s a young man of seven and he’s there to­day.”

“You com­ing is a mir­a­cle,” said PNG’s for­mer leader, Sir Michael So­mare, when he met Palm some months ago. “You save one life, it means you are sav­ing a na­tion.”

Palm, how­ever, cred­its his fam­ily, team and other sup­port­ers for Sa­mar­i­tan’s suc­cess.

“I feel I’m the lucky one be­ing over here able to do this,” he says. “It’s been an amazing jour­ney.”

See samavi­a­

Fly­ing visit ... a medicine drop at Eran vil­lage.

Good sa­mar­i­tan ... Mark Palm with ‘baby Mark’ who was named after him after he saved his life.

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