Mozambique (MNN) – In the United States, when there's a serious medical emergency in a remote area, a so-called "flight for life" helicopter brings emergency personnel to the scene, providing care on the spot and transporting the patient to a hospital.
For the past three months, the MAF (Missionary Aviation Fellowship) flying doctors program has been providing an African version of the flight for life in Mozambique. They not only fly patients to the hospital in a crisis, but also bring doctors to remotes areas.
Mozambique is one of the poorest countries in the world. The majority of its population lives in poverty, and one out of every six children dies before the age of five. AIDS, malaria and malnutrition continue to present major health problems. Life expectancy is about 42 to 45 years of age.
Ron Wismer, manager of research and operations support for MAF, said that in northern Mozambique, where the organization works, the road system is in shambles. That means a doctor might have to travel days to reach remote settlements.
Much of the damage to roads occurred during Mozambique's 16-year civil war, which ended in the mid-1990s. Since then, little repair work has been done. Flooding and neglect have also taken a toll on the road system.
'There are still many bridges that were blown and destroyed during the war, and there's no money really to repair roads and bridges," Wismer said. "Plus, the health system is pretty poor – particularly where we are working in the north."
In many cases, it takes up to three days to reach a remote clinic, driving in a four-wheel-drive vehicle over bone-jarring roads. With the flying doctors program, a journey that once took days may be cut to hours, or even minutes. That makes it more likely a patient will get life-saving care in time, says program organizers.
The program was developed by Dave LePoidevin, MAF program manager for Mozambique, along with Dr. Pim de Lijster of SAMmedic. It allows them to work with a number of remote clinics, staffed by nurses. Those nurses can decide which patients can be treated locally, and which need more-advanced care.
"The nurse would have the ability to understand this is a triage situation where we can work on the person here, or whether we need to call the airplane and transport them to a different type of hospital," Wismer said. "We're providing the flying part of that service."
Along with training nurses and pharmacists to staff the clinics, Dr. de Lijster and LePoidevin are working on technical challenges. One of the most crucial is communications.
"These clinics are so remote that some don't have cell phone connections," said Wismer. "Therefore, we need to have high-frequency radios that we are hoping to also provide and maintain."
Currently, regular flights run on Mondays and Fridays, and pilots are always available for emergencies. Two pilots are already at work in Mozambique, while a third is training to join them. MAF hopes to expand the program rapidly in the coming months.
The flying doctors program has the potential for great impact in Mozambique, where trained health workers and resources are in short supply.
Providing health care has become a way for Christians to demonstrate God's love, Wismer added.
"We just pray that Dr. de Lijster and our MAF program will be able to come alongside the government," Wismer said. "We also pray that we won't be viewed as being a para-government organization, but actually are able to provide that health care service with the understanding that we're doing it in Christ's name."