Saving Frieda

Posted: on June 11, 2013

Article by Glen Sim

As Capt. Mike Davis of MAF Mt Hagen taxied in to the hangar after his last flight for the day, he was met on the ground by the MAF programmer, Sharlene, who had news of a medevac that urgently needed to happen.

Some 40 kms away, in a small mission hospital, there lay a little 4 year old girl named Frieda from the Jiwaka Province who was critically ill. Having battled with Acute Flaccid Paralysis for the last three weeks, she was now paralysed from the neck down. This paralysis was so severe that it affected her respiratory muscles and she was unable to breathe on her own. She required intensive care management, including manual ventilation.

Earlier that day, as the medical staff continuously pumped oxygen into Frieda’s lungs, Dr Susan Myers was trying to book a place at the ICU in Port Moresby’s General Hospital. Although this was a massive 500kms away, it was the only hospital that could provide the level of care needed. As soon as it was found she rang her friend Jenny – MAF’s nurse – who immediately contacted Sharlene to arrange a medevac.

When the ambulance arrived at the MAF Hagen Base from the Web---Frieda-2_250mission hospital, Frieda was carried onto the tarmac on a stretcher. Dr Bill McCoy and David Wan (the anesthetist) explained the situation to Mike who was able to arrange for seats to be removed from his Cessna 208 enabling Frieda and her parents, along with the medical team to fit on the plane.

When Frieda was stabilised inside the aircraft, Mike took off and headed for Port Moresby.

They departed Mt Hagen in the Cessna ‘Caravan’ just beforWeb---Frieda-1_250e 4.00 pm and thankfully had good weather throughout the two hour flight. Despite every effort calling and re-calling the hospital, there was no ambulance waiting even though they were told by hospital staff, “Yes, it is coming, it’s coming”!

MAF’s Port Moresby Office Manager, Dobie Bunemiga, had anticipated the ambulance’s unreliability and had the MAF van waiting there for them. As night began to set in, Dobie drove Mike, Frieda, her family and the doctors to the hospital in the van.

A strange illness

Over dinner that evening Dr McCoy spoke to Mike about the illness. “In all my medical experience in the USA I had never seen this illness before. But since coming to PNG in 1997, a cluster of six instances of the illness had come from the Banz area (up the Wahgi valley). Since then there have been sporadic cases, mostly in young children 3-6 years old, with only one quarter of the victims being adults.”

Mike asked Dr McCoy if the condition of the girl would be permanent. The quietly spoken doctor said that she would hopefully regain the full use of her body, as the paralysis regressed and her nervous system healed after the infection.

Funding medevacs

Before Capt. Mike took off on the morning of the medevac, he had been told that the usual source of mission funds for non- Health Department medevacs was all depleted. Government Health Funds do not cover the transportation of all patients from mission hospitals.

MAF and the mission hospitals have a strategic partnership in this medical wilderness of remote communities in PNG. MAF subsidises the flights at mission rates and occasionally the hospital staff pays for the rest themselves. Dr McCoy realised that Frieda’s parents had no funds, so arranged to cover most of the cost of the flight. His parting words to Capt. Mike as they left the plane were, “The medevac will be financed by friends from my church in the U.S, and MAF, of course! Thanks”.

Unlike some patients after the illness who have lingering paralysis in their extremities, it has been reported by Dr Susan of Kudjip Mission Hospital that Frieda has recovered fully and returned home.


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