In January 2010, a devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit Haiti and killed 200,000 people. The earthquake was centered near Port-au-Prince, the nation’s capital, which was destroyed. Many hospitals were leveled, government buildings were wrecked and records and infrastructure were lost. Pat Dolan, a NY-based broadcast journalist and executive, responded to the call to action and flew to Haiti to help. That led to his founding Haiti Air Ambulance.
The non-profit has continued to help Haiti, by flying patients daily. But Haiti’s geographic location keeps it vulnerable to natural occurrences. As this year’s hurricane season approaches, the founder looks back while looking ahead at how the organization will handle its disaster preparedness.
How did you get involved in your work in Haiti?
Executive Director Nada Marjanovich and I volunteered with a missionary group to fly relief supplies to Haiti after the earthquake. I flew my twin-engine 8 seat Navajo Chieftain and Nada was my loadmaster. It was extremely fulfilling to use my flying skills and passion to help people in need. Some months later I wondered about the possibility of flying medical helicopters in Haiti. What I learned was that there was no helicopter EMS service in Haiti. Through the Internet I connected with a couple of pilots and medical people who were trying to establish one. We networked, plotted and called in favors. In a few months we were breaking ground for a new hangar near the airport in Port-Au-Prince.
Where in Haiti does Haiti Air Ambulance operate?
We primarily focus on rural areas because if someone in the countryside suffers trauma (heart attack, stroke, difficult childbirth, etc,) it can take hours and even days to get to the right care. We’ve heard about relatives carrying someone for many miles on a door. Or a dad strapping his injured child onto a motorcycle and riding over the mountains in search of help. Our helicopters can reach almost any part of the country in about an hour. We have about 70 partner hospitals in our network, which allows us to bring patients to the facility nearest to them to provide the most suitable care.
Why did you choose Haiti?
It’s the most impoverished country in the western hemisphere. It’s as natively beautiful as Hawaii or other exotic locales, but it can’t seem to catch a break. Because of the rugged terrain and poor roads, it’s very difficult to get patients to emergency medical help in time. Helicopter ambulances are the perfect answer for this.
What are the Haitian people like?
Haitians are naturally friendly, family-oriented, love music, street festivals and good times! Make eye contact with a Haitian and a smile will immediately greet you.
How did the hurricanes affect Haiti so soon after the earthquake?
Luckily, Haiti escaped the brunt of 2017’s hurricanes—a rare piece of good fortune. Unfortunately, the country is still suffering from the effects of Hurricane Matthew, a Category 5 hurricane which struck Haiti in 2016 and pretty much wiped out entire communities in the Southwest peninsula. Meanwhile, signs of the 2010 earthquake remain everywhere. The country is still vulnerable to mudslides and outbreaks of cholera, which have killed thousands and sickened countless others. Nevertheless, the country is making progress. There is a lot of construction going on in Port-au-Prince. A new port complex is coming soon. And there are plans for new resorts.
What are you doing to prepare for this year’s hurricane season?
The last two years taught us a lot. Mainly, that hurricane preparedness is key. We’re seeing first responders in government, like the department of civil protection (DPC), preposition assets as well as start the conversations with us and others, like OFNAC, Haiti’s aviation authority, and SAR, the Search and Rescue group, much earlier—in some cases we started having meetings earlier this summer. Internally, HAA has systems in place for all aspects of the onslaught, duration and aftermath of a hurricane in Haiti. Our helicopter medevac service expands during these times to take medical personnel and supplies into the areas hardest hit and bring patients out.
Explain HAA’s medevac operations in Haiti.
We operate two state-of-the-art Bell 407 medical helicopters out of our hangar in Port-au-Prince. They are fully equipped, mission-ready flying emergency rooms at all times. Haiti Air Ambulance contracts with Denver-based Air Methods Corporation to lease the helicopters and supply pilots, mechanics and aviation support. Haiti Air Ambulance also maintains its own medical crew of Haitian and American nurses, paramedics, EMTs and support staff to handle missions and run the day-to-day. In some cases, we are the only option for accessing medical care when traveling in Haiti and leaving the cities.
Who works with you there?
We have developed numerous relationships throughout the medical, business and government community. In particular, the Ministry of Health (MSPP), Haiti’s governing aviation agency (OFNAC), the national police (PNH) and other first responders. HAA has also developed partnerships with a network of 70 hospitals and clinics around the country.
What are the most rewarding aspects of your work?
The knowledge that we’re saving lives, plain and simple. And doing it without regard to a person’s income or social status. We’re keeping families whole, bringing children back to their moms and dads and parents back to their kids. At the same time, the existence of a modern, helicopter medevac facility in Haiti is encouraging the development of critically needed health care infrastructure. In turn this is great for the country’s economic future.
What are the greatest challenges?
Haiti is a very poor country. One of the biggest challenges is that there aren’t a lot of hospitals with trauma capabilities—especially outside the main cities. When people go into the provinces and succumb to accident or illness, the right help can be very far away. That’s why Haiti Air Ambulance is more than a helicopter emergency service. Our ability to land at more than 200 locations in the country and leverage our network makes us a bridge in emergency medical care in Haiti.
Is there an opportunity for someone to get involved, in person or through donations?
Absolutely! 100% of all donations go directly to services! We’re happy and grateful to accept donations here! Another simple way is making Haiti Air Ambulance your charity of choice on Amazon Smile by clicking here. Each time you log onto smile.amazon.com (rather than Amazon.com), Haiti Air Ambulance will receive the donations generated by your purchases!
Smile is identical to the regular Amazon and there is no additional cost to you, just the added benefit to help Haiti Air Ambulance save lives while making your regular online purchases. When traveling in Haiti, purchasing a membership provides peace of mind that if flown, the patient pays no additional out-of-pocket. That membership can be purchased here and also supports our sustainability.