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My friend, John Irving, is currently flying medical planes within the Navajo Nation that’s being devastated by COVID-19. I asked him to send me his story that I could post here to let people know what is actually going on. It’s just one story from the midst of this crisis. I want to add that John has been the chief pilot for heads of state as well as flying humanitarian missions around the world both professionally and personally, for instance to bring survival supplies to remote areas ravaged by floods or earthquakes. He’s one of the most caring people I know, who acts immediately to help those in need wherever they are. From this point on I’ll let John tell his story.

JOHN IRVING: I first started doing humanitarian flights in Alaska in 1976. One type of flight was taking Alaska State alcoholism counselors to native villages devastated by alcoholism. Frequently, after an emergency call-out, we would find all adults and teenagers in a village drunk and/or unconscious with children outside (exposed to the elements), kids who had not been fed for days. I also flew typical medevac flights in both helicopters (from oil platforms and fishing boats) and in airplanes.

Now I fly single-engine air ambulances for Guardian Flight, one of more than a dozen air ambulance companies owned by Global Medical Response (GMR). GMR operates ground and air ambulances in 40 states. In Gallup, New Mexico we normally have two Swiss-made single turbine-engine PC-12s, a twin engine Beech King Air 90C and one helicopter, all serving the Navajo and Zuni nations.

Now, during the corona virus pandemic about 80% of our flights are with Covid-19 patients, flying them from regional clinics and small hospitals on the reservation to larger hospitals in Albuquerque, Phoenix, Tucson and near El Paso.  

Covid-19 is slamming the Native reservations at a rate 3.5 times the rate of America in general.  This is a higher rate than even that suffered by America’s black and Hispanic communities.  

The reasons for this high rate of infection and death are simple.  Many American Natives suffer from diabetes, obesity, alcoholism, heart disease and respiratory problems, all of which increase the probability of getting Covid-19.  Social distancing is anathema in cultures where traditionally multiple generations live in a single dwelling, eat communally and care for each other instinctively.  Many of the homes on the reservation do not have running water.  Instead, they have an outside hand-pump.  This makes regular hand-washing difficult or impossible.  Many of these families live hours from the nearest medical facility, so often their illness is quite advanced before they go to a clinic or hospital.

We hear so little about the dire situation on the Navajo and other Native reservations because mainstream America has for centuries, paid little heed to the suffering of our poorer brown and black citizens.

Recently, many teen-age and young-adult Navajos and Zunis are collaborating in doing wellness-checks and bringing food, water, and sanitation supplies to elders who live alone.

Normally Gallup, New Mexico is the busiest air-ambulance base in the United States.  With the explosion of Covid-19, GMR has added 30 medical crew-members and seven addition air ambulances to the ‘four-corners’ region (New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado & Utah) occupied by the Navajo Nation.  This has made us much more responsive to the requests for emergency medical transport from the regional clinics and hospitals.

On a typical 12-hour shift I will fly two Covid-19 patients and one non-Covid patient from Gallop or one of the reservation airstrips, to an airport near a major hospital facility.  Typically I am in the air less than 30 minutes after being called out.  If the patient is local, I will prepare the aircraft readying it for the patient, while the clinical crew (nurse & paramedic) go to the hospital, assume the medical care of the patient, then bring the patient by ambulance to the airport.  If the patient is at a remote location, we will fly together to the nearest airport and operate from there.

With the Covid-19 patients, the pilot, nurse and paramedic are all wearing full personal-protective-equipment while loading the patient into the air ambulance, during the entire flight, unloading the patient into the ground ambulance and then to the receiving hospital.

While my clinical crew rides in the ground ambulance with the patient to the hospital, I will use spray alcohol and sterilizing wipes to thoroughly disinfect the aircraft; then I’ll drive a van to the hospital to take my crew back to the airport for our next mission.

The other night I had a singular honor.  My patient was a 100-year-old Navajo Code Talker; one of the great heroes of WW2.  He had served in the Pacific when my two uncles were there.  He was bright, funny and flirtatious with our medic who is 75 years younger than he is.  I am delighted to tell you we got him to the hospital in time and now he is well and back home with his family near Fort Defiance, Arizona.

Regularly, while flying back to base, Air Traffic Control will pass on a request from our dispatch center, asking us to divert to different airport for our next patient.  My normal shift is 12 hours, 12 off, but 16-hour days or nights are not unusual.

Best regards,
Capt. John Irving CEO, Drone Surveys & Reports, LLC

If you leave a message for John in the comments I’ll make sure he gets it.


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