Saving Lives One Emergency Flight at a Time

How did I end up on a muddy river in the middle of the jungle trying to save a lifeless stranger?

It was early morning in Wewak, Papua New Guinea when the phone rang. I immediately recognized the urgency in the person’s voice as he spoke. From my experience, whenever I heard that tone it meant that someone was dying.

The man on the other end of the phone is Daniel, the Community Health worker in Kanduwanem village, which is located in the lower Sepik River, a 700-mile river that cuts through the Sepik Plains between the ocean and the beginning of the highlands of Papua New Guinea. He told me he ran 30 minutes and climbed a coconut tree to get phone reception. He quickly filled me in on the emergency at hand.

A young mother had a breached birth and was unconscious. A medical worker from a village a few hours upriver had come to Daniel’s village and was pleading for help.

I rushed out of the door and headed for the haus sik (hospital) in town to pick up a nurse and a birthing kit. The Wewak Boram hospital services the entire population of 500,000 people in the East Sepik Province. Eighty percent of those living on the East Sepik River are three to five days away from this hospital by canoe or road. Ninety-eight percent of the people living along the river have malaria. These people suffer from tuberculosis, Cerebral Malaria, water-borne illnesses, snake bites, frequent tribal conflicts which result in spear and machete wounds — and have the highest infant mortality rate in the Asian Pacific Rim.

The 25-minute flight felt like an eternity as I thought about the patient’s condition and wondered if she would still be alive when we arrived. Upon arriving I spent a few minutes surveying the river for logs, debris, fishing nets, canoes, crocodiles, and sand bars so as to not hit something and damage the plane on the river with no way out myself.

After touching down on the Sepik River, we taxied up to the muddy bank. A large crowd had gathered — a floatplane is not something the people in the village see everyday. The villagers brought the young lady to the airplane on a canoe, and I could tell right away by the expression on their faces that the situation was dire.

It took three of us to load her limp body onto the stretcher and place her in the plane. She was completely unresponsive. I could tell that her only chance at surviving this was going to be emergency surgery at the hospital.

Because we always bring a caregiver from the village with us to feed and bathe the patient at the hospital, we didn’t have space for her husband. I said a quick prayer for Vivian, the patient, shut the airplane doors, and took off downriver for the flight to Wewak. At the same time, Vivian’s husband got in his dug-out canoe and started his long river trip to Wewak.

How did I get here in the middle of the jungle on this brown, muddy river?

As we were flying to Wewak I looked back at this lifeless lady whose head was mere inches from my seat. I will never forget that picture. Moments in my life seemed to flash in front of me as I thought about my own journey. How did I get here in the middle of the jungle on this brown, muddy river? Why was I here trying to save the life of this young lady I had never met before?

I thought back to my childhood. My father was a minister and I was the fourth of five boys. I thought back to the moment that I accepted Jesus and what he had done for me as a 10-year-old boy. I thought of  the time we moved as a family to Santa Cruz, California so my Dad could run a homeless outreach called Elm Street Mission and how that experience gave me a new perspective on life and what it meant to live out the call to love our neighbors as ourselves.

I also reflected on the times my family talked about aviation and flying. My grandfather was a WWII pilot, two of my uncles flew, and my cousin was a military aviator. I remembered my trip to Mexico as a 16-year-old to build houses with my church youth group. This was where God spoke to me most clearly, telling me he wanted me to use my life to be the hands of Jesus and to share his love in a remote area of the world through aviation.

I thought of the life-changing trip to Papua New Guinea for the first time as a 19-year-old in 1994 where I was able to see how the people lived and the needs that were in this remote part of the world. During that trip, living in the villages, two things stood out to me: spiritual darkness and little access to medical supplies and emergency services. I fell in love with the people of Papua New Guinea, people who speak a fifth of the worlds’ languages and have a diverse culture. People who have the most beautiful smiles and are some of the friendliest I’ve ever met.

I thought back to when I had come back to America and about being overwhelmed with the sense that I needed to do something about the needs I saw. How I spent the next seven years in flight schools and aircraft engineer school, while working as a youth, associate, and worship pastor and finding my life partner in Kirsten. All of this work in preparation to return to Papua New Guinea and serve its people.

I had a vivid memory of how my friend Gary and I founded Samaritan Aviation in 2000. We sent out a prayer card to 330 people with the dream of being the hands and feet of Jesus to those without access and hope in Papua New Guinea. It took us 10 years of hard work, living by faith, and having hundreds of people believe and support us to finally get a floatplane, my wife and I, and our three kids to Papua New Guinea in early 2010.

“I don’t deserve that your God brought you here to save my wife and babies!”

Then I came back to the present, to Vivian in the floatplane. After the short flight, I landed in Wewak and took her unconscious body on the bumpy ambulance ride to the hospital. Upon arrival, Vivian was rushed into emergency surgery.

Three days later, her husband Jerry arrived in Wewak.  He had been told by the medical person in his village that his baby was dead before we came and that his wife was probably going to die as well. In Papua New Guinea the custom is that you always take anyone who dies back to the village for burial. He was so sure that his family was dead that upon arriving at the hospital he went straight to the morgue. Not finding the bodies of his loved ones, he made his way to the maternal recovery area.

He walked in to see his wife alive and holding his twin babies. After an emotional reunion with his family, he came to us and said to my wife, “I am not a good man. I don’t deserve that your God brought you here to save my wife and babies!” We were able share with him that none of us are worthy of God’s love, but that through Jesus we have forgiveness of sins and can become worthy through the grace that he has extended to those who believe.

We left the hospital that day praising God for another three lives saved and feeling humbled and thankful for having the opportunity to be a part of it.

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Samaritan Aviation uses the only floatplane in Papua New Guinea to serve the people on the Sepik River and coastal islands through emergency flights, medicine and vaccine delivery, disaster relief, and community education programs. We have saved thousands of lives through the 100,000 pounds of medicine delivered, have flown more than 500 life-saving emergency flights, helped stop a cholera outbreak, and worked closely with the Papua New Guinea government to offer these services at no charge to the people on the river.

In fact the government now supports 50 percent of our operating costs and has just helped us purchase a second seaplane that was be shipped out in November 2015. We are planning to see its first flight in February 2016. We also have a thriving hospital ministry using full-time Papua New Guinean staff who work with the patients we fly in to pray with them and provide clothes and food as needed.

For more information go to or check out Samaritan Aviation on Facebook. Consider partnering with us to provide fuel for 350 hours of flights in 2016. Each hour of fuel costs $200. Join us here:

Image courtesy of San Jose Mercury News.

Mark Palm
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