On his anniversary with Haiti Air Ambulance the program director shares insights about Haiti, HEMS and driving in Port-au-Prince
Prior to joining Haiti Air Ambulance, paramedic Matt Bonnet spent 25 years of active duty flying nearly 600 rescue and medevac missions with the navy and marine corps. His career also includes foreign diplomacy time, having spent four years as defense attaché operations coordinator at the US Embassy at The Hague. He has operated in challenging environments and war-zones throughout Africa, the Middle East and Asia. But nothing could have prepared him for Haiti’s unique challenges—or the rewards of working with the country’s first and only medevac program.
Why did you take this job?
After 25 years of naval service and a rewarding career, I knew it was time to transition and utilize my training and skills towards a new challenge. Accepting this position would allow me to continue to practice medicine while in a management position—and in a program that is extremely unique with a team that is very elite. My family discussed the pros and cons and it was clear that this opportunity allowed me to be part of something that makes a tremendous impact in the lives of many people in Haiti.
What did you think it would be like?
I was first here during Operation Uphold Democracy in 1994 and again in 2010 following the earthquake in Port-au-Prince during Operation Unified Response. I knew from experience that there would be some challenges but wasn’t quite sure what those would be until I arrived. HAA’s HEMS operations are much safer than I expected (or was accustomed to) and the process is completely different than I expected.
But in fact, what is it really like?
Traffic is absolutely insane! I have never been in anything like this in all my life! What a blast! You must keep your head on a swivel and plan your routes with alternate routes at all times. All of the things they teach you in the military is paying off for me as a civilian! The medicine we practice is unlike any emergency care I have ever provided. I have never been limited by resources and that is an additional factor that is planned into the beginning and during patient care in Haiti.
Is there a story or situation that exemplifies this?
Our patients are often malnourished, have chronic conditions and have been sick or injured for a while before we have been called. When we arrive they are very sick and we need to perform advanced interventions. It may be a rapid sequence intubation or a chest thoracostomy, perhaps an aggressive medication drip or a series of procedures—all of these require specialty equipment and experience at the receiving hospital. And that is not always available.
What is the single biggest lesson you learned?
Safety above all else. The first thought I have in the morning and the last thought I have at night is “is my team safe?” We work in an inherently dangerous business and in an austere environment where safety is paramount. There is zero margin for error or complacency. The executive director and I meet daily and discuss security and programmatic operations. Our team trains constantly and discusses safety at every morning brief.
Haiti has a way of leaving an indelible mark on anyone who spends a little time here, what will that be for you?
I often stand out on our helicopter pad the first thing in the morning with a cup of Rebo coffee and admire the beautiful mountains and dream of how beautiful it was here in the 1400’s—the most mountainous and beautiful island in all of the Caribbean. It is still some of the most amazing flying I have ever done. Unfortunately, Haiti is nowhere near what it could be, they have so much more to offer the world.
Your tours in the navy, marine corps and Defense Intelligence Agency have brought you to more than 50 countries, working with virtually every nationality on the planet. How is working with Haitians different?
This question makes me smile because the first thing that comes to mind when I think about Haitians is that they are always smiling! I especially love our team because they take so much pride in their work and they value each other as an integral part of the mission. Haitians are friendly and helpful, particularly when we’re flying to some of the most remote villages in the country. An entire village will help with moving a patient to the landing zone and provide coconuts and water to keep us cool. This is where we find some of the happiest and most genuine humans on earth!
What is hard? What’s your biggest challenge?
So many things that we take for granted in the states don’t exist in Haiti or are inconsistent. Unreliable water, electricity, transportation, logistics and the limitations of health care facilities can easily skew a well thought out plan. Nothing is easy. The biggest challenge is being able to foresee what is going to go wrong and getting ahead of it.
What’s the biggest reward?
Ask anyone who has come to Haiti to fly medevac with HAA and they will tell you the same thing: there is an immeasurable sense of hope for the world that one gains on every flight where we have the opportunity to save the life of someone who would otherwise not live. There are no egos here. In fact, this is one of the most humbling jobs on earth. To have the privilege of flying for Haiti Air Ambulance, and to lead this group of heroes that do this every day, that’s the biggest reward of all.
Given the headlines coming out of Haiti lately, why should anyone care about our work or the people HAA serves? What would you say to the cynics?
There is legitimate civil unrest, there is no question. And there is high poverty and crime. It is easy to focus on those that want to cause problems, but the fact is there are more people that are just trying to work and put food on their tables. Our patients come from villages that are not part of this chaos though they are suffering because of what you’re seeing in the headlines. We serve the people and visitors who can’t get to higher levels of care, like when they’re in the countryside where basically no urgent care exists. If humanitarian organizations go away just because it’s hard, that makes it all the easier for the bad actors to have their way.
Curious about the experience? If you think you have the skills and integrity to positively volunteer to Haiti Air Ambulance, email firstname.lastname@example.org to start the conversation today!