Dr. Vincent DeGennaro Jr. ’02 | August 22, 2018
I got the call at 4 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon, sitting at my desk in the Innovating Health International cancer center in Port-au-Prince. Two tourists had become gravely ill on a cruise ship docked in the north of Haiti. In independent events, both of their hearts had stopped beating and bystanders had intervened with CPR until the ship’s medical staff could arrive. The medical helicopter service I work with, Haiti Air Ambulance, was tasked with transporting the patients from the ship to the international airport in Cap-Haitien where evacuation jets would be waiting.
“We might have to stay the night, so pack a bag,” the lead paramedic, Brooks, told me as I boarded. In four years of working with Haiti Air Ambulance, neither helicopters nor crew had ever stayed out past dark, even in the wake of Hurricane Matthew. In fact, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) forbids us from flying at night, given the lack of radar and accurate weather reporting over Haiti’s mountainous terrain. An Air Ambulance was already en route for the sicker patient, who was connected to a ventilator and would be flown by jet from Cap-Haitien that night. The helicopter I was boarding would be transporting the second patient, and, by the time I arrived at the base, the narrow window in which to collect him before nightfall was already closing.
We took off within minutes, and, as we approached our destination, the first helicopter was visible on the narrow concrete dock linking the pristine beach with the massive cruise ship. The pilot expertly landed our craft directly between the first helicopter and the ship, navigating between two low concrete walls with a few feet to spare on either side. We hustled onto the ship with our equipment and stretcher in tow. “We have to be off of the ship no later than 6:30,” Brooks said, “or we won’t make it home before dark.” It went unsaid that missing that deadline also meant the patient would not make it to a hospital.
The crew of the ship hadn’t received approval from corporate headquarters in South Florida that the passenger was allowed to leave. It didn’t seem to matter that the passenger and his wife both wanted to leave the ship, or that this was the passenger’s last chance to leave before the cruise embarked on two days at sea. Mario’s heart had stopped suddenly and without warning on the beach at noon, but he seemed no worse for the wear at that point.
“We have to depart in ten minutes because of the sunset,” Brooks informed the ship’s lieutenant, “so you have eight minutes to secure approval or he’s stuck with you.”
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