“Covid flights”: the plane that saves lives of coronavirus patients in Peru

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Before, he rescued injured tourists in Cuzco or Machu Picchu. Now it takes the infected from remote parts of the country to Lima.

A small ambulance plane is helping to save severely ill coronavirus patients in remote areas of Peru, one of the countries hardest hit by the pandemic, which has a winding geography and a poor road network.

Before the pandemic, the company SARA Peru used to fly to Lima mainly foreign tourists who suffered accidents in the Andean city of Cusco or the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu. As tourism came to a standstill in March with the health crisis, the company adapted and now makes “covid flights”.

“Lima handles more specialized hospitals, more trained personnel, all the equipment (that) in the province we do not have,” Yda Pozo, 38, who accompanies her husband with coronavirus, tells AFP agency, while the Beechcraft B200 King twin-engine plane Air crosses the skies of the Andes towards the Peruvian capital.

Her husband was transferred in critical condition from one hospital in Ayacucho to another in Lima.

During the 40 minute flight, the patient travels in a “protection capsule”, a stretcher with a hard plastic cover. He is assisted by a doctor and a nurse, who supply him with oxygen, inject him with medications and give him hemodynamic treatment.

All is similar to an intensive care room of hospital aboard the pressurized turbo jet plane, which can fly at an altitude of 9,000 meters, almost the same as a commercial one.

The doctor Tulio Peñuela and the nurse Michelle Chacón work in a confined space and deal with the movements of the aircraft. They wear chinstraps, plastic face shield and biosecurity suit, as do the pilot and copilot, who are isolated in their cockpit.

“We try to ensure that the patient comes in the same or better conditions” than in a hospital, says Dr. Peñuela to AFP

After landing at the Lima military base, adjacent to Jorge Chávez International Airport, the nurse said with satisfaction: “We have made a contribution to save a life.”

Ayacucho is 330 km from Lima in a straight line, but along the narrow roads of the Peruvian highlands the journey lengthens to 560 km and takes nine hours.

Further, There are other Peruvian cities from where it is impossible to travel by land to Lima. This is the case of Iquitos, located in the jungle where the Amazon River is born, 1,012 km northeast of Lima.

To get from Iquitos to Lima you have to cover some sections by routes and others by boats through rivers in the jungle. On the other hand, the Beechcraft takes two and a half hours to bring Juan Carlos Lara, 59 years old, to the capital.

The two children of this patient with coronavirus took him by car to the Iquitos airport, where he was placed inside the “protection capsule” to be put on the plane.

I was very anxious during the flight. “Come on, dad, you can,” his daughter Andrea Lara, who is a doctor, repeated next to him.

Upon landing, Lara was put into an ambulance and taken to Rebagliati hospital in the capital.

“This work is very difficult, because all patients are complicated or at high risk of complications,” SARA coordinating physician Ismael Escalante told AFP.

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