Locals part of Flying Doctors mission
July 29, 2004
The Piper Twin Comanche was approaching its maximum weight capacity as three passengers and pilot Rob Lober taxied onto the runway at Truckee Tahoe Airport. Cleared for takeoff, the plane gained proper ground speed, then effortlessly lifted itself skyward. Another Flying Doctors mission was aloft, and citizens of the remote Baja fishing village of Bahia Asunción would soon become beneficiaries of the expedition. Truckee resident Dr. Belinda Murphy and Physician’s Assistant Debbra Montoya, who lives in South Lake Tahoe, were flying their first mission for the organization. Lober, who is not only the pilot but also the plane’s owner, is an Incline Village real estate agent and building contractor. He flew his first volunteer mission in 1999; this would be his 18th.The fourth seat is usually occupied by a translator, to allow for effective communication between medical personnel and their patients. On this occasion, the medical team was proficient in Spanish, so the final seat was awarded to a journalist.Also known as Los Medicos Voladores (LMV), the Flying Doctors is a diverse group of medical professionals and volunteers who provide free health care and educational services to residents of remote villages in Mexico and Central America. The two closest chapters are High Sierra, which meets in Reno and in Truckee, as well as Gold Country, which meets in Auburn.Baja boundThe six-hour flight to Bahia Asuncion included a refueling stop in Yuma, Ariz., as well as a customs-clearing stop in the Baja village of San Felipe. The entire flight was smooth and uneventful, and the group spent most of the time enjoying the scenery and listening to music, while cruising at an airspeed of 190 miles per hour.
The first order of business upon arriving in Bahia Asunción was to fly low over the town, banking sharply before returning to the nearby dirt airstrip to land. As it turns out, this is the manner in which local officials are alerted to the presence of an aircraft. A taxi of sorts, in the form of a late model black Ford Expedition, driven by the town’s mayor (who was known simply as El Presidente), arrived to provide transport. Later, the first-time volunteers would learn that this was the finest vehicle in town. Most of the rest – those that were still operational – cruised the unpaved streets in various states of disrepair.Los Federales (federal soldiers) also arrived on the scene, but didn’t pay much attention to the items being unloaded from the aircraft. Part of this resulted from the fact that everyone seemed to know that this group of visitors was part of an LMV mission. The other part was that there wasn’t much to unload.Other than the plastic box containing a little less than 50 pounds of medical equipment, the volunteers were limited to a maximum of 15 pounds of luggage. The Comanche is comfy and swift, but rather limited in payload capacity.On the groundThe strong ocean breeze that had presented a minor navigational challenge while landing now provided some welcome relief from the sun’s searing rays as the gear was loaded into El Presidente’s SUV. The group was whisked directly through the main part of town, arriving in short order at the medical clinic (La Clinica), where patients were already present.A quick glance at the condition of most of the town’s buildings made the overall lack of financial resources readily apparent. The clinic was no exception.An examination table and desk in a private room was the extent of the facilities where both the physician and physician’s assistant were instructed to set up shop.Already at work were four LMV volunteers who had arrived a day earlier. This group included a dentist, Dr. Joe McElhinney of Reno, pilot Tom Harper of Auburn, volunteer Elizabeth Collins of Kings Beach, and translator Manuel Oropeza of Truckee. Dentists provide LMV services that are both valuable and in high demand, due to the fact that teeth can be cleaned, and cavities filled, in a short period of time without the requirement of follow-up treatment sessions.When the next trip may not be scheduled to a particular remote community for the better part of a year, it’s easy to see why dental care is an important part of the overall services provided by LMV. Optometry is another good example of a quick diagnosis, quick treatment type of medical discipline.
Special treatmentDr. Murphy and P.A. Montoya quickly had their hands full as well. Patients ranged from children with eye infections and stomach aches, to an adult with skin cancer and a hiatal hernia sufferer.Some patients could be helped, others could not. All appreciated the services.One case involved a 50-year-old retired abalone diver who complained of hearing loss. Commercial divers in this region routinely free dive (without scuba equipment) to depths of 50 feet or more. Montoya gives him ‘the whisper test.’ He fails. He can’t be helped here today. He’ll have to see a specialist, in a town several hours to the north, if he has the money to go. He probably doesn’t.A man in his mid-sixties has a knee problem; he describes his condition to Dr. Murphy. She translates his comments for the reporter, whose Spanish skills are excruciatingly limited.”His whole knee is messed up. It hurts and makes grinding noises when he walks. We can’t fix his knee, but we can make him feel a little better today,” she explained.His treatment included an injection with a combination of medicines to decrease pain and reduce inflammation. He was also fitted with a brace to help provide stability.Eventually, more than 100 patients received either medical or dental treatment over the two days in which the teams were present at the clinic. In a village with a population of less than 3,000, this seemed a pretty strong turnout.LMV volunteers spent the night at the Hotel Verduzco, which appeared to be the lone lodging option in town. Though the accommodations seemed spartan by north-of-the-border standards, the pilot of the dental team remarked, “This is actually one of the better places we stay.”
Harper should know. The soft-spoken aviator has volunteered for dozens of LMV missions over the years. He is also a veteran of four tours of duty in Vietnam, and has logged more than 20,000 hours as a pilot.Rest and relaxation (and work)The next day, both groups repacked their bags and caught rides to the airstrip. A one-hour flight across the Baja peninsula brought Lober’s Piper and Harper’s Beechcraft to Punta de San Francisquito, a picturesque resort on the Sea of Cortez. Here, the volunteers would have the opportunity to enjoy some rest and relaxation, while providing medical services to the local populace.Within a five-mile radius, there were less than 50 total residents of this seaside hamlet. Fifteen of them became patients. When everyone who sought medical attention had been treated, the work was over.A little sightseeing was now in order.A road trip of perhaps twenty miles into the desert, along a dusty dirt path, allowed the group to visit several caves containing intricately painted petroglyphs of remarkably high quality. Fishing was another recreational option, and everyone who participated managed to snag at least one fish.As Punta de San Francisquito is located at least an hour’s drive from the nearest utility pole, all power is supplied by a portable generator. When it shuts down every night at nine, the darkest sky imaginable provides the velvety backdrop for stargazers sleeping on the beach outside their cabanas.On the long flight back to Truckee, while successfully dodging a number of Sierra thunderstorms, the first-time volunteers agreed that this would not be their last Flying Doctors expedition. Additional information about LMV may be found by visiting the organization’s web site at http://www.flyingdocs.org.