Richard Andrews reports on good samaritan Mark Palm who is saving lives and delivering vital medical supplies in remote PNG with his air ambulance service.
“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 organization 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, immunizations, search and rescue, you name it. “About 225,000 people live on the 1100 kilometer 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.