Did you hear about the pilot who delivered a baby?
It's a true story of two volunteer nurses who are providing medical services to interior residents
By Samantha Alleyne
May 23, 2004
What would motivate a young American couple to abandon all the luxuries of their First World life and head to one of the poorest developing countries to provide medical assistance to remote communities?
"It is a religious calling and the love for God," says Gary and Wendy Roberts both trained nurses who have been working in villages located in the interior bringing medical relief to many Amerindians.
Delivering a baby in a four-seater plane, saving the lives of little children and bringing the message of Jesus Christ are just some of their rewarding experiences.
Stabroek News caught up with the enthusiastic couple at the place they call home in an apartment at the back of the Davis Memorial Hospital, D`Urban Backlands.
Wendy is very quiet and unassuming and allows her husband to do all the talking. But from time to time, she would interject to correct him as he passionately describes his motivation for joining the project.
Gary describes delivering the baby on the aircraft as one of the most exciting experiences he has had since he came here.
He received a call for help in a village called Phillipai in Region Seven late in the afternoon where he found a woman who was in labour for some 52 hours with her first child.
"So I had to make a decision to either stay there for the night or take her to the regional hospital. It seemed as if she was progressing but there was nothing, there was no light so I decided to take her out where she could be in a place where we could monitor her. So we got in the plane and about half way to the hospital she delivered."
He recalls that the baby had the umbilical cord wrapped around the neck and he had to quickly remove it.
Roberts explains that because the aircraft is only a four-seater he was able to manage the delivery. "I suspected that it might have happened so I had my gloves and my medical equipment right up front with me, so I was switching gloves checking on her, switching gloves, flying again adjusting the control..."
There are a number of volunteers who have done the same to join the Guyana Adventist Medical Aviation Service.
Winston James, Associate Director for the programme, describes it as "a unique funding system" in that the volunteers raise their own funds. Some would even sell their homes and come over to give service in the villages.
But there are also churches, organisations and individuals who would help out.
The organisation has two four-seater aircraft that they use to evacuate sick persons and take in supplies to the villages.
Gary, a trained pilot and the only one to operate the two aircraft, recalled that it had been his lifelong dream to be a missionary. His father was one as well as a pilot and his mother is a nurse. So he is the combination of both his parents. He grew up in Central Africa until he was 15 and spoke the tribal language.
Gary was still in college in the USA pursuing his Bachelor of Science in nursing and was already a pilot, when he heard of the organisation. He contacted the founder, David Gates and they kept in contact.
As soon as he graduated, he joined the project and shortly after Gates and his family left Guyana to continue another project.
The couple travels to many interior locations, but call the apartment home even though they have remained in most of the villages for three to four days at a time. The two are based in the city because of the availability of fuel and other items.
At the moment, the organisation has some six to eight nurses working in the villages and they also have a doctor as part of the group.
Some of the volunteers come for short periods while most come on one-year contracts and if they like it, they return. Gary says there are three couples who have returned for indefinite periods.
The nurses live among the villagers and adapt to their lifestyle. They work along with government health officers in some villages but in some cases, the village has no health worker.
Because of his experience in nursing, Gary can assess whether a patient needs to be evacuated to the city or to one of the regional hospitals. In most cases, the sick person lives so far away from the airstrip that villagers would have to fetch them from miles in either hammocks or makeshift stretchers.
Gary transports volunteers and takes in food and medical supplies. He also takes supplies to two schools, which are part of the organisation where there are volunteer teachers.
The Davis Indian Industrial College is located in Region Seven while there is a secondary school at Kimbia, Berbice River. That school is more focused on academics and the students live at the schools with the teachers. They pay a small fee for the accommodations and they also work on the farm at the school and on the campus.
Speaking of the need for the industrial school in Region Seven, Gary says the organisation decided to take this approach, "...Because many of those students from Region Seven were unable to study through the normal system. Maybe 'cause they did not have a primary education or they were going up to the farm or there was not a school available. And they are in that age bracket with no hope and they are young people basically with nothing to do and when they don't have anything to do they get into trouble. So we have a school and have 50 children. They also learn Maths, Science, English and Social Studies but then the afternoons are set with them doing the hands-on projects, carpentry, Home Economics..."
He says students learn skills they could use when they return to their villages instead of travelling to the city to learn about computers and then when they go home there are no computers for them.
Speaking about the history of the organisation Gary says the founder, Gates, was working in Trinidad and visited Guyana where he saw the need for medical care in the interior as well as education.
After a few months he returned with his family and they moved into a village called Kaikan in Region Seven, lived there for about two years and provided medical care for the people.
Eventually they were able to get an aircraft in 1996 and began medical evacuation from the villages. More volunteers joined Gates, who was also a professional pilot, and the programme expanded.
The first aircraft was inaugurated at Ogle Aerodrome on July 12, 1996 and began providing services to residents of Kaikan. It expanded soon after to Paruima, Kamarang, Arau and Waramadong, all in Region Seven.
The organisation has now spread its wings to Regions Eight and Nine and would receive requests from time to time from villages for assistance.
He says in one month he would make about ten to fifteen trips in and out of the city. Whenever the aircraft evacuates a sick person to the city it would return the villager upon completion of their treatment.
The organisation works closely with the Ministry of Health and Gary says Minister of Health Dr Leslie Ramsammy is very supportive of their work as they often assist the ministry in transporting medication and personnel.
The organisation has also assisted in arranging treatment for children overseas and training bible workers who would then teach the word of Jesus Christ to other villagers in their own language.