WEB EXCLUSIVE: Day 80 in Haiti-Helping One Soul at a Time

Dr. Rick Bonnell and his 13-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, help Saint Pheyla “
Friday, April 16, 2010 - 8:54am

From her home near Pierre Payen, Haiti, just one week after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake had devastated the country on January 12, Saint Phelya Dorsan took her mule and headed down the hill to the roadside market to see whether there was food to be bought. The 11-year-old, nicknamed "Yadissa," which means "little stinker" in Haitian, never made it to the market. As she crossed the busy thoroughfare, an equally strong aftershock struck the area, tossing traffic and people. Suddenly a bus careened toward her. 

Yadissa doesn't remember anything else about the accident. An unknown bystander lifted the unconscious girl off the road and carried her five miles to the small Project Help Haiti Hospital in Pierre Payen. The impact crushed her pelvis, broke one leg in two places and caused life-threatening bleeding.

In spite of the devastation around her, Yadissa received life-saving treatment from a medical team led by Dr. Rick Bonnell, a pediatric ER specialist from Cook Children's Hospital in Fort Worth, Texas. "In a way she was lucky," said Bonnell, who was there volunteering with Project Help Haiti. "If the accident had happened a week earlier we wouldn't have been there and she wouldn't have gotten the surgery she needed and likely would have bled out." 

As soon as Bonnell had heard about the earthquake a week before, he had immediately called the Project Help Haiti Hospital in Pierre Payen, where he regularly volunteers. "I found out that our hospital was intact," he said, "but there were dozens of patients with severe injuries there, and no surgical teams or supplies. They needed equipment and doctors." Bonnell knew corporate aircraft could help him; he'd seen how in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. 

Meanwhile, in Austin, Texas, Robin Eissler, vice president of Corporate Aviation Responding in Emergencies (Care), was gearing up her business aviation resources via Facebook and calling Care president Marianne Stevenson and the National Business Aviation Association. "After Katrina we asked NBAA to start a listing of companies and people willing to volunteer their aircraft and/or pilots during emergencies," Eissler explained. "Because of that list and our social networking resources, within 72 hours of the earthquake we had 70 aircraft ready to go to Haiti."

Bonnell got a lift to Haiti from an old friend with a Falcon 20. They landed in Port-au-Prince on January 16. Eissler and Stevenson's Care flights were in-country the same day. TV news showed images of food and water sitting on the international ramp while the UN, Haitians and U.S. military sorted out who got what. Meanwhile, the more nimble corporate aircraft were pulling onto the general aviation ramp or the grass, quickly moving their payloads by hands directly from aircraft onto waiting vehicles from small non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

The strategy is simple. "Every airplane is maxed out in both directions," said Stevenson. Supply warehouses were established at Fort Lauderdale Executive and in Santiago, the Dominican Republic, to stock aircraft, the operation managed by Banyan Air Services' Sueanne Campion. Temporary ports-of-entry were established at outlying airports, so aircraft could fly direct to and from international points.

"Our flexibility, innovativeness and willingness to work with everyone keeps this operation efficient and effective," Eissler said.

Such flexibility saves lives, Bonnell knows. In one case Bonnell sent his wife, Dr. Wendy Bonnell, a text from the operating room in Haiti: "I can't save this child here." Wendy Bonnell, who was back in Fort Worth, contacted Eissler in Austin, who quickly arranged for Partners In Health pilot Peter Simpson and his Pilatus PC-12 to swoop in to Port-au-Prince after coming off another run. Then Wendy Bonnell texted her husband: "Get to the airport NOW." The child was Yadissa.

Bonnell loaded his patient, barely stable, into the bed of the hospital's pickup truck and laid beside her to protect her as they rode to the airport. Guards at the front gate refused them entry because Yadissa had no papers and no passport. The driver drove them to a back gate, where they slipped in and watched Simpson land the PC-12. The doctor and four other guards carefully lifted Yadissa's stretcher out of the truck and then ran across the ramp to the grassy area mid-runway, where the airplane had been marshaled. 

Simpson opened the cargo door on the airplane's left side and they loaded the stretcher. With the stretcher secured and the door closed, Simpson spun up PC-12's single Pratt & Whitney Canada PT-6 turboprop and departed from mid-field. Contacts at Fort Lauderdale Executive within Department of Homeland Security and Florida's Department of Children and Families waived the immediate paperwork. Within four hours, Yadissa was in an ambulance bound for a Broward County, Fla. O.R.

Six weeks later on March 27 in the same PC-12, Dr. Rick Bonnell with his daughter Elizabeth accompanied Yadissa back to Pierre Payen, and watched as she walked into her father's arms. "I promised him I'd bring her back," Bonnell said. With Care's help, he did.

700 Patients, 700 Flights, 750 Tons of Cargo

Over the course of 80 days, Care flights put 3,800 people, medical teams and aid workers into Haiti. They brought back more than 700 critically injured patients for treatment in the U.S. More than 100 donated corporate and private aircraft moved 1.5 million pounds of food, medical supplies, and equipment into the country through more than 700 flights in. "At one point," said Stevenson, "we had six flight coordinators for Haiti, all working different regions. They were all volunteers, like we are."

Since the Bonnells hooked up with Care, Project Help Haiti Hospital alone has rotated 11 surgical teams in and out and completely equipped the Pierre Payen hospital. It now has the premier orthopedic unit on the island, with a C-arm fluoroscopy x-ray machine flown in by Simpson, in the Partners In Health PC-12.

"The flexiblity private aviation afforded us was nothing short of amazing," said Bonnell. "Care tailored the type of aircraft to the number of people and the supplies we had, amended schedules." He paused. "Look, sometimes you donate money to a large relief organization, and you never know where the money went," he said. "But aircraft owners donating the use of their airplanes, they absolutely know. We send them pictures back."

The needs in Haiti were changing as the relief effort rolled through day 80 after the quake. Wendy Bonnell worries that Americans are losing sight of the poorest country in the western hemisphere.

"Our flight needs are just as critical now as they were a couple of days after the earthquake," Care's Eissler said. "We are doing medevacs, mostly of surgery cases that have been waiting and have become critical. The supplies are still needed, too." 

Stevenson said, "Even though the airlines are flying into Port-au-Prince, there are many things they won't carry," she said. "We are still seeing a strong need, and we'll keep flying, supporting those on the ground, helping the country to get to a better place." The NBAA pre-registration for emergency availability shows some 425 aircraft on Care's roster, thanks to heightened awareness. "Our aircraft are the lifeblood of Haiti's outlying regions, because we have the appropriate assets and placed them in the appropriate locations," Stevenson added.

Eissler said, "Every single aircraft that volunteered to go to Haiti for us has offered to go back. Pilots get there and see what we are doing-helping-and they want to help more. It isn't over." 

Editor's Note: 

Amy Laboda, a pilot and previous member of the Women in Aviation board of directors, was invited to accompany Dr. Rick Bonnell back to Haiti in the Partners in Health PC-12 to document the return of Saint Phelya Dorsan to her parents and the role that corporate aviation has been playing in Haiti. 

"There had been bad press about Haitian children being taken from their families for 'adoption' in the U.S.," Laboda explained. "In addition, Robin Eissler, vice president of Corporate Aviation Responding in Emergencies [Care], wanted to keep the public aware that there is still a huge corporate aviation presence needed to help with the rebuilding of Haiti, and that she is still using donated corporate aircraft daily for both logistical movements and patient rescue in the country. She invited an AIN reporter to come along, and I was available." 

On the airplane with Laboda was a cameraman for CBS News (Dan Rather Reports), who was documenting the story for 60 Minutes. "He had no idea that the airplane was donated by Partners In Health," she said. "He was amazed at what Care and PIH and others had accomplished through small-scale aide. It was a terrific experience." 

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“We must not confuse the present with the past. With regard to the past, no further action is possible. ”

-French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir