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Eric the helicopter baby

Saved by a helicopter. Albina Raphael and her four-year-old son, Eric.
© Chambers/UNICEF PNG/April 2012
Albina Raphael and her son, Eric.

By Noreen Chambers

Four-year-old Eric Raphael is known as the helicopter baby by everyone in his remote Goutakogena village in inland Rigo, Central Province.

When I first heard about him during a recent trip to his village with a health team to implement and monitor the national Supplementary Immunisation Activity (SIA) in April, my curiosity took the better of me and I sought out his mother to get the full story.

The full story is a life of enduring hardship, harsh challenges and an amazingly resilient people who live in an incredibly hostile environment devoid of most government services. There is no road to Didigoro, the last fully functional Aid Post closed its doors more than 23 years ago, the community’s Diguarubo Primary School for many years has only ever had two teachers who teach all grades from elementary to grade six. The last time teachers taught full time was in 1988. These days the school is only open half the year and most students keep repeating their grades every year.

Don’t get me wrong, Didigoro village made up of some 27 houses is perched on a picturesque mountain ridge in beautiful tranquil settings. It is a clean village, I notice. The locals tell me they made a decision some years back to keep their pigs confined to pens and that has made a huge difference to the cleanliness of the village. What a welcome observation! To one side of the village, the mighty Omand River glistens in the sun as it lazily meanders its way downstream.  Just a stones throw away from the village is a lovely stream where the locals get their water supply from. That’s about where the serenity ends.

The quickest way to get to and from Didigoro is a two to three hour dinghy ride when the water level of the Omand River is high enough. Sadly the water level is never high all year round. Locals have to contend with a seven to eight hour bamboo raft downstream or a treacherous six-hour trek that takes you through some of the most hostile and unsympathetic environments. It is inland and highland country so climbing and descending mountains is a given. It is this unforgiving environment that makes one wonder how one can live in such remoteness when in fact Didigoro isn’t really that far from Port Moresby.

On 11 April 2008, mother of four, Albina Raphael, pregnant with her fifth child went in to labour. The river level was low so a dinghy trip was out of the question and she couldn’t trek the six-hour foot journey to Magi Highway to catch a ride to the nearest health centre at Kwikila to deliver her baby. With no skilled midwives to supervise her delivery, Albina gave birth to her son alone at home that evening.

“It didn’t take me long to realise something was wrong after I gave birth to my son. The baby was fine but I was bleeding heavily,” Albina explains quietly in tok pisin.  She had a complication, her placenta was retained and she was losing a lot of blood. With no aid post or health worker around, all the villagers could do for her was to pray and wait for the next day to do something.

At first light the next morning, the villagers quickly prepared Albina and her new born baby for an eight-hour canoe ride that would take her downstream to Omand Bridge on Magi Highway. Here, if she was lucky, she would catch a two-hour ride to the Kwikila Health Centre for help. Fortunately for Albina, the day she left on her canoe trip was also the day the Health Division of Central Province was distributing treated mosquito nets to rural communities. With the help of a helicopter, Kwikila Health Health Extension Officer, Vagi Malona and his team went from village to village supplying mosquito nets when they learned of Albina’s emergency.

After following the river for a while, the helicopter crew spotted the canoe halfway to its destination. Helicopter pilot, Eric set down the helicopter on the bank of the Ormand River and airlifted Albina and her baby to Port Moresby where she was treated and later discharged.  Yes, you guessed it, baby Eric was named after the helicopter pilot who saved his mother.

Sadly, Albina’s story is not unique. .. well it is unique in the sense that she was saved from a pregnancy complication by pure chance of a helicopter being in the area at the same time. But many women in this remote village deliver their babies in their homes unsupervised. Albina herself gave birth to four of her five children at home. Most women never get the necessary antenatal and post natal care simply because of the long distance to the nearest health facility. As soon as the mothers regain their strength, they make it their business to trek the six-hour journey with their babies to the main road to get to the nearest health centre for their babies to be immunised.

This time though, Eric is among 65 other children who received booster immunisation for measles and polio without having to leave their village. Albina is one of 34 women who also received a tetanus shot.

As part of the country’s third Supplementary Immunisation Activity, a team of health workers from the Department of Health and Central Province Health Division accompanied by UNICEF travelled on foot for 10 hours to reach Didigoro, normally a six-hour journey by locals, to immunise children against measles and polio and women against tetanus.

UNICEF, one of three partners supporting the Governments SIA effort, supplied fifty percent of the measles vaccination that will be used in this special national immunisation campaign. An estimated 800,000 children under three years and two million women of child bearing age (15 – 45) are expected to be immunised. Central Province is among five other provinces that performed poorly in the 2010.

Eric, the helicopter pilot who saved baby Erics mother had this to say after this story was published in the local newspaper, the Post Courier.

“Your story on Post Courier on May 1, 2012 touched me more than anyone else because I happened to be that pilot. I have received accolades and commendation through my career, but for a child to be names after me has to be the ultimate compliment. It may have been a routine flight for me, but the fact that I have helped save the lives of a mother and a child gives me great satisfaction. I am sure anybody would have done that and I thank Erics parents and relatives for such a compliment. I hope Erica grows up and becomes a helicopter pilot so he too can help his own people. I wish him well.”

Albina gets her tetanus shot during the Supplementary Immunisation Activity at Didigoro in Rigo District, Central Province.
© Chambers/UNICEF PNG/April 2012
Albina receives her tetanus shot during the Supplementary Immunisation Activity at Didigoro in Rigo District, Central Province.



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