Science

Coronavirus: the ambulance plane saving lives in remote areas of Peru

Peru and its mediocre winding road network leaves only the air as the only alternative to the vital emergencies of coronavirus patients. A small plane that once carried tourists has turned into an air ambulance and now saves lives.

Before the pandemic, SARA Peru transported mainly foreign tourists to the hospital in Lima, accidentally injured in the Andean city of Cusco or in the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu.

Tourism having stopped in March with the health crisis, the company has adapted and now performs what it calls “covid flights”.

“In Lima there are specialized hospitals, trained staff, all that we don’t have here in the provinces,” at Ayacucho hospital, in the Andes Cordillera, Yda Pozo told AFP.

Worried, the 38-year-old woman takes a seat next to her husband, who has the new coronavirus and in critical condition, as the twin-engine Beechcraft B200 King Air takes off in the sky of the Andes towards the Peruvian capital.

During the 40-minute flight, the patient travels on a stretcher inserted into a “protective capsule”. He is assisted by a doctor and a nurse, who provide him with oxygen and give him injections, which makes the plane appear to be an intensive care unit.

Doctor Tulio Peñuela and nurse Michelle Chacon, dressed in biosafety suits and a face protection mask, just like the pilots isolated in their cabin, adapt their every move to the jolts of the plane.

For Dr Peñuela, it is “to ensure that the patient is in the same or better conditions” than in the hospital.

Once on the tarmac of the military base in Lima, adjacent to the Jorge Chavez international airport, and the patient transferred to an ambulance, Michelle Chacon finally breathes: “even today we have helped to save a life”.

– “You can do it” –

A doctor and a nurse take care of a patient with coronavirus, locked in a “protective capsule”, on board an ambulance plane bound for Lima, on September 1, 2020 at Iquitos airport, in Peru (AFP – ERNESTO BENAVIDES)

Ayacucho is 330 km south of Lima as the crow flies, but the journey through the narrow roads of the Peruvian highlands, 560 km long, takes nine hours.

But there are Peruvian cities where land access is even more restrictive. This is the case of Iquitos, located in the jungle, where the Amazon river is born, where to get to Lima, more than 1,000 km to the southwest, you have to take tracks and sometimes even a boat to navigate. on the rivers crisscrossing the jungle.

But it only takes two and a half hours at the Beechcraft to transport Juan Carlos Lara, 59, to his hospital bed in Lima.

The man, placed in the “protective capsule”, was very anxious during the flight. “Come on, daddy, you can do it,” his daughter, Andrea Lara, herself a doctor, told him over and over. Eventually, she was given a sedative to keep her constants stable.

A patient with the coronavirus is installed in an ambulance after being transported by plane-ambulance from Iquitos airport to Lima on September 1, 2020 in Peru (AFP - ERNESTO BENAVIDES)

A patient with the coronavirus is installed in an ambulance after being transported by plane-ambulance from Iquitos airport to Lima on September 1, 2020 in Peru (AFP – ERNESTO BENAVIDES)

“These are all complicated transfers because patients arrive with complications or with a high risk of complications,” Ismael Escalante, SARA Peru coordinator, told AFP, who so far only deplores one death in flight.

And of the fifty or so seriously ill patients transported on life support, 15 were doctors.

Because the services of medicalized aircraft are requested mainly by the Ministry of Health or other public or private entities such as the Association of Peruvian Doctors, in a country where the coronavirus has killed 193 doctors.

A patient with the coronavirus arrives at the intensive care unit at Rebagliati Hospital in Lima after being taken to an "security capsule" on board an ambulance plane from Iquitos airport, September 1, 2020 in Peru (AFP - Ernesto BENAVIDES)

A coronavirus patient arrives at the intensive care unit at Rebagliati Hospital, Lima, after being transported in a “safety capsule” on board an ambulance plane from Iquitos airport, on September 1, 2020 in Peru (AFP – Ernesto BENAVIDES)

And although these covid flights are very expensive, between 10,000 and 15,000 dollars, some families have organized “chanchas” (collections) between relatives and friends to finance the transfer of a loved one to Lima.

Peru, 33 million inhabitants, is the third Latin American country to have the most deaths, after Brazil and Mexico, with 32,142 dead, according to an official report on Saturday.

But in proportion to its population, Peru has the highest coronavirus death rate in the world (98.68 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants), according to the American Johns Hopkins University.

A patient with coronavirus is taken to the intensive care unit at Rebagliati Hospital in Lima after being transported to an "security capsule" on board an ambulance plane from Iquitos airport, September 1, 2020 in Peru (AFP - ERNESTO BENAVIDES)

A patient with the coronavirus is treated in the intensive care unit of the Rebagliati hospital, in Lima, after being transported in a “security capsule” on board an ambulance plane from the airport of Iquitos, September 1, 2020 in Peru (AFP – ERNESTO BENAVIDES)

Encouragingly, the country on Thursday recorded the lowest daily death toll in 5 months.

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