A Nigerian life was on the line. Sadly, the patient that was in dire need of urgent medical attention was trapped in a traffic gridlock on the busy Benin-Ore expressway.
“He is in a critical condition, so how do we get him out of that chaos, and speedily back to Lagos was the question on the lips of the patient’s immediate relatives.
“We need to send for an ambulance,” the first person suggested.
But the suggestion to deploy the normal vehicular ambulance from a nearby hospital to the scene was greeted with silence.
Everyone present expressed the view that no matter the speed and how loud the sirens from the ambulance sounds, it would be an Herculean task accessing the trapped patient. It was a day where everything on the road stood at an attention as if the Nigerian national anthem was being sang.
Here, time was of the essence; and every second counted a lot in getting help across to the sick.
Then someone played around with this suggestion, “I wish we could find an air ambulance around.”
“That is it; that should be the perfect solution,” another person retorted. The idea was in fact bought as fast as it was suggested. It was at that point that a call was put through to the management of Tropical Artic Logistics (TAL) Limited.
Within minutes, an AW139 helicopter was flown by TAL to the scene and the patient was evacuated to a Lagos hospital where he was resuscitated. Without a doubt, a life was saved, great thanks to the services of a medical emergency helicopter.
Although for majority of Nigerians who probably saw for the first time an helicopter land on the middle of an express road to pick up a passenger, the TAL helicopter intervention was misconstrued as one of those cases where the upper class displayed their affluence to taunt or oppress the poor. Such disturbing questions as these were bandied around by many on various social media platforms: “Who authorised an helicopter to land on the highway to pick up a passenger?” “How safe are we in this country if someone can fly an helicopter about and land wherever he wishes?” “The rich in this country always oppress the poor!” “We don’t have regulations or laws in Nigeria!”
Why aircraft are deployed for medical evacuation
However, globally, hospitals or medical insurance firms deploy aircraft for purposes of emergency medical evacuation where delays by road ambulances movements are anticipated. They are mostly refered to as ‘flying doctors’ and there are Flying Doctors in Nigeria handling various emergency evacuation in the country. Helicopters in particular are designed with speed, landing gears and manoeuvring mechanisms to conduct emergency evacuation all over the world. They operate out on the roof tops of buildings, roads, waters, open fields and even in fire-fighting situations.Therefore, medical responders to crisis in an helicopter can provide both a higher level of care at the scene, faster transportation to a specialist hospital, and critical care during a journey.
In fact, the TAL AW 139 helicopter that drew criticism from many Nigerians on the Benin-Ore road happens to be one of the many aircraft licenced in Nigeria for medical evacuation operations.
It was only three days later that Nigerians realised that The Benin – Ore road evacuation was conducted in close collaboration with security agencies, the Nigerian Army and Nigerian Police, who worked assiduously to clear the gridlock caused by the on going road construction for the TAL helicopters to assist the sick person.
“We did not violate any law; we filed for a flight path and got approval by NAMA for that operation on the Benin-Ore expressway,” explained Chief Operating Officer of TAL, Mr. Femi Adeniji.
“We have an Air Operating Certificate (AOC) from the NCAA and we are licensed to carry out medical evacuation operations and on that day we were engaged to airlift an individual who suffered a serious health challenge while caught in traffic and needed emergency evacuation,” he added. The well-established theory of the golden hour suggests that major trauma patients should be transported as quickly as possible to a specialist trauma centre. And an aircraft can travel faster and operate in a wider coverage area than a land ambulance and therefore better deployed for emergency medication evacuation. Likewise, Air Traffic Control (ATC) grants special treatment to air ambulance operations, much like a ground ambulance using lights and a siren, ATC gives priorities to aircraft on medical emergencies to take-off and land ahead of other aircraft.
As explained by Flying Doctors Nigeria, the nation’s poor road network often makes the use of aircraft necessary for medical evacuation. A patient could easily bleed to death within the time it takes to get to the receiving hospital on ground because of bad roads or poor road network. But an aircraft effectively bypasses narrow roads, port holes, crowded, and twisting roads that may cause further injury to the patient and delivers the patient safely to designated hospitals for urgent medical attention.
The major disadvantage in the case of are evacuation is the potential hazard from adverse weather conditions which pilots usually have to consider before embarking on any flight operation.
Cost of services
Although, the concept of using air transport to provide medical evacuation for those in critical conditions dates back to World War I, its role was subsequently expanded beyond military operations to civilian emergency medical services.
Air transportation, without a doubt, is more costly than land, sea, or rail transportation, and emergency medical evacuation by an aircraft doesn’t come cheap either. Average cost within Nigeria it was learnt could range from $10,000 – $20,000 (or its naira equivalent) depending on the distance. But an air ambulances service from Nigeria to the UK starts from £47,000.
Except for very few among the upper class who can afford these charges, the best option for the majority of the people is usually to sign up for an health insurance policy that also allows them access to air ambulance cover at a reduced cost. When next an helicopter is sighted airlifting someone in trauma, it does not necessary imply that there has been a breach of law, it could be one of those aircraft embarking on an emergency medical evacuation operation.