Chiapas Air Ambulance

A repeat of a story blogged four years ago.

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We’re circling over Corralito, a remote airstrip in Chiapas State, Mexico. I check for animals on the strip and wonder if the injured Tzeltal Indian man is still alive. The tiny strip lies tucked in below a terraced cornfield on a hillside, so I need to approach around a low hill. At the last minute the airstrip appears in my windshield. We bank, line up with the strip and soon we feel the long grass under our wheels as we taxi the red and white Cessna 180 over to where Mario lies inert on a stretcher with his tumid stomach bulging below his pulled-up shirt.

Antonio, his brother, stands by mute while another man talks to me in Spanish. “Capitán, Mario was feeding stalks into the trapiche sugar cane press when the horse’s bar turned and squeezed him against the press.” As we lay the injured man in the airplane, I think, he’s young; he has a good chance of pulling through.

We depart Corralito for our home base. San Cristobal sits on the Pan American highway at an altitude of 7,200 feet, landlocked in the bottom of a vast basin with high mountains surrounding. Last night a squally norther blew across the region and its soggy remains still stick fast to the mountains. I test the entrails of the storm, probing one cloud-clogged pass after another. Finally I see a bit of light where the Comitán highway snakes between two hills. We high-jump the pass and then drop down into San Cristobal bowl. We can see the ground, but a solid wall of clouds plugs the path ahead! I bank steeply in the cramped head of the valley to reverse course, pulling on flaps to decrease our turning radius. We cut it so close it seems the wing seems buried halfway into the mountainside. Even using the best angle of climb we barely make it back through the narrow pass. I almost decide to divert to Tuxtla down in the valley, but at the last minute we slide through a hole along the rim and drop down into the huge San Cristobal bowl.

After landing in the late afternoon light, Chuck, the chief pilot, helps me load Mario into our old Chevy van to drive him to the small hospital for X-rays. The doctor tells us, “His interior organs are damaged. He needs to go to Tuxtla.”

We can’t fly at night; we must take him down the mountain in the van. So again we load him in and soon we’re on our way down the winding road. I think, Antonio must feel helpless in the hands of strangers who are struggling to save his brother’s life. I sit in the back next to the patient, feeling his heaving chest and listening to his hoarse, shallow breathing.

Then white foam bubbles out of his mouth—his lungs must be filling with fluid! I tell Chuck to drive faster. Then his breathing stops.

Antonio asks me in broken Spanish, “Will we get there in time?”

“We’ll try our best.”

Then I realize he’s gone. Antonio begs us to continue on to Tuxtla, but Chuck tells him, “There’s nothing we can do; it’s too late. We’ll have to go back to San Cristobal. If there’s still a little bit of life in him when we arrive, we’ll see the doctor again.”

We head back into town and rouse the doctor in the middle of the night to ask for a death certificate. He gives it to us, but we can’t quickly get the additional permit to transport the body back to Corralito so we’ll have to do it secretly. We drive into our darkened hangar and carefully lay the man onto the floor of the plane. His forlorn brother works to arrange the limp limbs before rigor mortis sets in. I get back to my hostel late, vomit, and then lie sleepless all night. It’s the first time I’ve seen a man die.

 

The next day at first light, Chuck takes off to fly the body back to Corralito. Antonio, dejected, sits in the copilot seat. I walk outside the hangar feeling the morning chill, my eyes following the plane as it climbs out over the valley—a tiny red dot silhouetted against the green mountains. I know something of grace in my life; I now pray grace for the dear, waiting family who must plan for a funeral. I trust that our work can continue here and that our flight service can help lighten the load for many of these Chiapanecos.

Click HERE to view Blessed Unbeliever on Amazon.com

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