Sunday, February 14, 2010

Chapter 47: Development

This sounds post-modern. Maybe it is, or maybe it is just over-revealing, too much of an open page in a public diary.

I acknowledge I am extremely privileged to do what I do here. I will see first hand what amazing things are happening in Africa. As a pilot, I will meet and talk to people who have lived through extraordinary events. But the flip side are the times I am a small part in a big story that I can't always wrap my intellect around. Like my part was written into a middle chapter of an epic novel, between the introduction and denoument. A part of the plot development.

That was last Thursday. I looked over my right shoulder, straining against my shoulder harness to look down, towards the floor of the Cessna 206, in which I had spent around five hours that day. Mary was there, eye lids barely open, and completely unresponsive to the world. At least, I was told her name is Mary. An IV hung from a cargo ring, tied with a bandana. And I can still hear her labored, raspy breathing. It sounded like her diaphragm was moving fluid more than air. The nurse kept pushing on her left side, I am guessing to help clear the fluid. Mary's whole body seemed unnaturally swollen and yellow.

"We need to get her into a hospital now so they can remove the fluid," the nurse told me, no longer with a level tone in her voice.

Mary was intubated through a nostril, and I asked the nurse if she had a syringe that could be used to pull the fluid out through the tube. She just shook her head. Because of someone's miscommunication, we were waiting on the ramp in Nairobi for an ambulance to arrive and take her to a hospital. We didn't know where because that decision was still being made. The thought grew stronger in my mind that she may die on the floor of this airplane. On the ground. In Nairobi.

I was supposed to be on a flight to Sudan. The "seventh crew member on the DC-3" one of the pilots later joked with a half smile. The DC-3 would have been my ride to Lokichoggio along with several other pilots who were flying for a couple days in Sudan. I was looking forward to it since it would be an opportunity to get checked out in a few new areas. Then the flight request came. A sick person wanted to go home and another sick person needed a ride to Nairobi. Our chief pilot could take the flight, but he thought this would be a good experience for me. So I decided to see those parts of Sudan another time.

The details sauntered in. One passenger would pay at the destination, but I needed to get cash from the other passenger for their portion of the flight. The sick lady couldn't sit up, so we needed a way for her to lie down in the 206. More importantly, I was briefed on the route of the flight. The first stop is inside military airspace, and required special instruction. All three stops were new airstrips to me, so I studied our airstrip directory and listened to the briefings about each of them.

Thursday morning I found myself taxiing into Nanyuki airstrip. I had been there before on a weekend trip with friends to the base of Mount Kenya. It is a different airstrip than most we fly to- with a nice cafe and interesting selection of general aviation aircraft in the hangars. It feels a lot like the States. It is also at a fairly high elevation, as the ground rises towards the tallest mountain in the country. As I rolled to parking, AIM AIR base told me on the radio that my passengers called and said they were still 10 minutes away.

I replied I understood, but was confused why they weren't already here... I took the time to check my fuel and oil, take a first stab at the cargo and passenger loading and work on my takeoff performance. I was planning on a sick man and his wife plus a small travel bag for both of them. As I was leaning through the pilot door scribbling numbers down on the pilots seat turned desk, out of the corner of my eye I caught a matatu (public mini bus) pull into the gravel parking lot. It stood out from the safari vans and Land Rovers next to it. As I stared, four Kenyans emerged. They stood out from the clientele that was lounging in the open air cafe. I started walking over to the group of dazed people in faded worn clothes. One of the men was as skinny as a rail, and I had a hunch these were my passengers.

"AIM AIR?" I asked,

No recognition. I motioned to the north... as if that would communicate more.

"Gatab." One of them said.

OK, right people. That's where they are going. Then they started pulling things out of the back of the matatu. A lot of things. A double or queen mattress, a large woven plastic sack of potatoes, four back packs, four boxes, and several shopping bags. My ground time was already hitting fifteen minutes, and I needed to think about arranging this cargo in a small airplane already arranged for a makeshift stretcher.

I hung our fish scale on the right wing tie down, and guessed at what would fit in the pod. One of the airport personnel helped as I weighed things and he put them in the pod. Then we rolled up the mattress and placed it with the oversized box in the rear of the plane. I pulled the net back against the mattress and tied it back.

"You are going to tie it down?" The sick man asked. I nodded. Everything inside gets tied down, even his mattress.

I ran my numbers again. Fortunately I had overestimated body weights, but underestimated the amount of cargo. It worked out still, and after 45 minutes on the ground, we were moving.

AIM AIR has a pilot family based in Gatab, and Jeff was there to meet me. I am not checked out on the upper Gatab strip, which is by the mission station. I haven't seen it, but it is a little tricky since it ends at the edge of a cliff. So I went to the lower airstrip. It meant Jeff had to drive down to pick up these passengers. He arrived in time to pull out some thorn bushes on the runway and gave me a good touchdown zone to shoot for. I overflew the dirt runway, then went into a pattern for landing. The terrain in the area is amazing, with deep gorges cut into the mountain that Gatab is built on. As I lined up on final, it was all I could do to work the throttle to keep the airplane stabilized on the approach. The wind whipping over the hills was turbulent at best.

On the trip to Gatab, base had informed me that the lady in Marsabit was getting worse, and they needed me to do a quick turn at Gatab. I just had to unload, so it shouldn't be a problem. Plus, with Jeff helping, it should go fast. After the rocky approach, we touched down firmly, rolled to a stop, then taxied back to Jeff's Land Rover. He was running up from the approach end of the runway, engulfed in a cloud of dust from the slipstream of the propeller. I shut down, and was ready to pop open my door when the man said something about prayer.

I didn't quite understand. I prayed with the whole group before we took off, and I thought he wanted me to pray again. I said that I could, then he pointed to his wife. He wanted her to pray. I looked at Jeff running up to the airplane. "OK," I said as I nodded my head. I was thinking maybe the landing was rougher than I thought, and they had seen their life flash before their eyes. I was also thinking, though I hate to admit this, that I hope this goes quickly because I needed to keep moving.

It didn't. She prayed slowly and deliberately thanking God for His blessings, for life, and for health. Thanking Him for the safe journey. I think about it now, and I get goosebumps, but at the time I was not focused on what she was saying.

After "Amen" I popped the door open, and helped them get out. I started unloading the pod while Jeff unloaded the rear of the plane. He gave me some pointers on taking off from the airstrip and a briefing on landing at Marsabit. Then I checked fuel and oil. Both were doing great. This whole trip would be on round trip fuel. It amazes me that I can do that in this plane, and still carry  the load I did. It was also my first time to need to use the tip tanks, which carry two extra hours of fuel that I can transfer into the main tanks as their fuel is burned off. The whole process worked perfectly.

Jeff asked if I had lunch yet. "Nope, that's next." I replied. He laughed and said I had enough time between here and Marsabit to eat something.

The 40 minute flight went fast. I wolfed down sandwiches and pulled hard on the water that was still ice cold. Then I ran some numbers for my next stop. I hoped this time the cargo wouldn't be excessive.

As I arrived and taxied into the parking area in Marsabit, I saw a white Cessna Caravan parked there with a huge crowd behind it. I was trying to figure out why the crowd was there. Then I saw an ambulance in the middle of the crowd and the pilot of the Caravan looking at me arrive, and I suddenly knew. 

The other pilot is a Christian man who flies for an operator also at Wilson airport. He said hi to me, then "Well, captain, I'll leave you to it." As headed off.

Akeem was my contact person for this flight. I spotted him quickly in the crowd from the clothes he was wearing, and his shape was totally different from the rest. He is a transporter, and has helped out a lot of the missionaries in the area. I still don't know his relationship to the sick lady, other than he wanted to help them.

"You are late!" Was the first thing out of his mouth. The crowd had waited since 11 am. It was now 1pm. Not sure why they thought I would make it by 11, I dismissed his comment. He also said that there would be now a total of four passengers. This was news to me.

"I was told there was only three."

"Yes, but you see you are late, and now we need to take four."

I didn't follow the logic, and decided I should make a quick call home. I explained the situation to our base, and they said it was my call. I ran the numbers, and I could take all of them out within our AIM AIR guidelines with margin to spare. Fortunately the only luggage they had were two briefcases and two plastic bags. Praise God!

I asked Hakeem why the extra person? He explained that as the day wore on, the patient's condition became worse, and they felt they needed to send a nurse along. The extra person was a nurse. That convinced me. "OK, no problem."

From the first minute I arrived in Marsabit, I was shadowed by a man who I always bumped into when I turned around. I had to part the crowd to get to my seat, to get to the cargo door, or to the wing and engine. Everytime I turned around, this guy managed to be right there.

"I have flown on these airplanes!" He told me over and over. "I know AIM AIR!"

He told me he almost died and one of our planes flew him to Gatab where he was treated in our clinic. I wish I could have heard more, but now wasn't the time.

I had one more matter to settle. I told Hakeem I had been told that he would pay for the flight here in Marsabit. I hated to have to bring it up now, but it needed to be addressed. Hakeem pointed to the lady's brother, who was eager to pay what was expected.

I loaded the three well passengers in and briefed them on the doors and seat belts, as well as first aid and survival equipment and fire extinguisher locations. Then I told them they could put the patient in the plane. I was shocked when I first saw her. She was much worse off than just anyone who had to lie down. I gingerly helped put two seat belts over her legs and waist to secure her onto the back board we had mounted in the airplane. I couldn't quite tell how hard to sinch the belts, since it seemed her body was quite bloated. Her breathing had a rattle to it, and the sliver of her eyes that was showing showed no recognition of what was going on around her.

When she was secured, a sickly odor filled the airplane. One that almost made me want to give back my hurriedly eaten lunch from a half hour ago. Before I got in I told everyone I wanted to pray first. I wasn't sure what they believed, so I prayed for protection and for the strength of the patient and for her health. I also thanked God for sending His Son so we could all have Life.

It was a two hour flight to Nairobi. It had been bumpy all day, and I wanted to get above the scattered clouds, but I didn't want to go too high and cause undue stress on the patient's laboring lungs. I found a good smooth altitude that put us up just high enough to scoot over Nanyuki in the shadow of Mount Kenya again, then down to Nairobi.

After landing at Wilson, base said to call them when I shut down. That's when I learned that the original planned hospital couldn't admit her. They had been told she would be an outpatient, but when they realized how critical she was, they knew they didn't have the room to care for her.

Those ten minutes of waiting on the ground were hard. I racked my brain trying to figure out what to do. I was just about to call AIM AIR and ask if we can have one of our missionary nurses come to help, when I saw the ambulance pull up to the gate. I ran up to the driver and started giving him directions to the plane. He looked at me like I was crazy.

"Are you Saint Johns?" He shook his head, and drove across the ramp to the emergency garage for the airport.

Then I saw another ambulance pulling up. In blue it said "Saint Johns," the name of the company I was told would be coming to get her. Musioki, one of our flight line dispatchers, and a pastor and friend, was their to guide them to the airplane. They carefully moved Mary from the 206 into the rickety mini bus ambulance. I noticed they put her on oxygen, and she was still breathing.

Musioki asked me which hospital they were taking her to. I told him, and he shook his head slightly. "That is the worst! She will die there." I didn't want to believe it, but I knew he might be right.

There must have been relatives that arrived on the ambulance. One of them burst into tears when he saw her laying in the airplane. The brother had been sitting next to me on the flight down. He had come because he knows Nairobi. I think he was still out of his league because he spoke absolutely no English. I had shared a candy bar with him and let him take some pictures with my camera. Before he left with the ambulance he grabbed my hand and told me his name, slowly, while his eyes watered. I just nodded my head. I think he was saying thank you.

Musioki and I watched the ambulance drive off, now with their sirens going. I don't know if I will see Mary again, but I hope so. It would be nice to see how this story ends.

As I try to understand all that happened on that day, I do find a joy in knowing that even though I never know the opening or closing chapters, I am part of God's story, and those unknown chapters will be the very best they could be.

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