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’Our First Priority‘ – The story behind medevacs in PNG

Story & Photos by Ashley Leyenhorst 

While only a small portion of MAF flights, medevacs may be considered the most crucial. Here’s how each emergency call brings the whole team together to act quickly and efficiently.

“Medevacs are our first priority. It’s life and death, so we need to save a life,” said Serah Michael, MAF PNG’s Bookings and Operations Officer. In January, MAF PNG facilitated four medevacs (short for medical evacuations). Each one started with a call from a health worker or an airstrip agent, and all of them emerged out of the blue. “They show up at any time,” said MAF Pilot Timon Kundig. “We can’t really plan on having a medevac.”

When the calls first come in, the requests go through a screening process to ensure that the need is genuine and urgent. “There are several questions we ask, like when has it started or how is the condition of the patient,” said Serah. Once the medevac has been approved, the MAF Bookings and Operations team (MAF BOC) must work fast to provide the needed support. The MAF BOC team communicates with a receiving hospital to arrange an ambulance to take the patient for treatment.

“It’s always a bit difficult when it’s unplanned and [MAF BOC] has to change the flights, reroute [them] a bit,” said Timon.

A planned program for the day then often gets cancelled to allow for the medevac. For this, many different aspects need to be considered. “It’s a long process. We have to check if the pilot is checked at that particular airstrip, that an aircraft is available, that we have enough hours left in the day and more,” said Serah. “We can’t just go and tell the pilot to ‘do this’ without containing all the information.”

Once everything is cleared, either the pilot will divert from his original flight plan, or an aircraft gets launched specifically for the medevac.

On arrival the pilot will communicate closely with locals to ensure the patient is seated or laid as comfortably and quickly as possible before flying to the assigned hospital location.

Funding for medevacs comes through various paths depending on the case, including village funds, global donations, funding from provincial health facilities, and more.

“Most of the rural people don’t have money to charter planes,” said Serah. To train and invest in local health care through strengthening and equipping Village Health Volunteers or Community Health Workers remains a challenge within the health system.

MAF partners with several hospitals and Provincial Health Authorities to facilitate health patrols to remote communities. Thanks to funding of a total of 300 flight hours for medical patrols by MFAT/NZ Aid, MAF was able to facilitate more than 100 medical patrols to 50 villages in the last one and a half years.

“Medevacs are definitely worthwhile,” said Timon upon returning from a medevac flight. “It’s really nice for people to realize that the help we offer is valuable, it’s lifesaving.”



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