Image: The triplets and their mother,Rose Arbias, being buckled in for the helicopter trip to Semega Village, Obura-Wonenara in the Eastern Highlands
Among the backdrop of high infant and maternal deaths in Papua New Guinea, the survival of a set of triplets and their mother has brought a ray of hope to health workers and rural villagers.
Two days before Good Friday, 23-year-old Rose Arbias from Semega village in the Eastern Highlands, gave birth to a set of triplets.
With no road access and no medical facilities able to warn her, she went into full term without knowing she was going to bear triplets.
The only medical expertise she could draw on was from Sota Paiyo, a village birth attendant trained by Australian NGO, Care International.
“She gave birth to three babies in the bush all by herself without assistance,” said Paiyo. “Then she came and got us.”
Apart from making Rose and the babies comfortable, there was little Paiyo could do. The placenta was still in Rose’s belly and if it was not removed with professional help, she would develop complications and die.
What followed was a rush to convey the information of the condition of the mother and babies the babies and to pass on the approximate location of a village not located on maps or GPS systems.
It took at least a day and a half before, the message reached health authorities in the Eastern Highlands. A request for a medevac was sent to Manalos Aviation in Lae – the company tasked with conducting medical evacuations in the Obura-Waninara District.
In Lae, the the job of finding the location and planning the rescue fell to the Chief Pilot, Jurgen Ruh, a veteran of 30 years who has flown multiple rescues into in some of the most difficult terrains in Papua New Guinea.
“It was very difficult. We had to do a lot of research about the villages that were closest to their village.”
After a full day of planning, it was now up to Jurgen Ruh and the medical team led by medevac nurse, Pendek Sitong, to make sure, the mother and babies were brought out alive.
“This job is very different,” said Pendek Sitong, who recently joined the Manalos team.
“On the ground, things are different. When you are up there, there are so many uncertainties.
“You have to stabilise the patient and take into account many other factors you don’t have to deal with on the ground.”
At 6am on Good Friday, the lone chopper, headed to remote Eastern Highlands in search of a mother and three babies in need of help. Sometimes, rescues don’t always go to plan, but for this one, everything was executed with precision.
“We were lucky,” said Jurgen Ruh, “The weather was kind and we found the village.”
As the chopper retuned to Lae, it was all hands on deck for the staff at Manalos Aviation. The trusty village birth attendant, Soto Paiyo, stepped out of the chopper carrying one of the bilums with the babies. The other two, in another bilum were taken to the small hanger as Pendek Sitong and her team, wheeled Rose into the waiting ambulance.
“This is a jackpot!” Pendek said in between excited. “Usually we rescue one baby. For this trip, we got THREE!”
A little over a month later, on the day they were going to be discharged, Jurgen, who had been keeping me updated on the progress since the rescue, sent an SMS at 11pm saying: “2 of the triplets have fallen ill, and will remain in hospital for two weeks..”
The return trip was to be cancelled. For the Manalos staff and many others, who had supported the triplets, Rose and Soto, their survival hung on the nurses and doctors at Angau Hospital and on the many prayers and wishes for their recovery.
Pendek, Medevac nurse and unsung hero, was at her usual station when we went to get an update. She was reflective.
“I don’t want them to become statistics,” she said. “If I have a skill I can use to help others, what good is it, if I keep it to myself?”
At least two weeks after that interview, the babies got the OK to return home and this time Jurgen Ruh, knew where to fly to.
On the way to Semega village, the helicopter stopped by in Yonki to pick up another passenger, Obura-Wonenara MP, Mera Kipefa. Last year, the scientist-cum-politician made a decision to use district funds to pay for medical evacuations into isolated communities. He was attacked by critics who said the decision was politically motivated and was too expensive.
“Sometimes, mothers and children die because they can’t get to a hospital,” he said. “For the people help like this is very important. It saves lives.”
At Semega, the whole village turned up. Men, women and children in traditional attire, came out to welcome Rose and her three babies.
While the crowd gathered in the village circle, Soto Paiyo, the brave village birth attendant, who took care of the triplets and spent more than a month away from home, broke down in tears as her six-year-old son hugged her.
For Sota Payo, the month long absence from her son Took a toll on her.
The biggest hero has been the humble chopper pilot from Lae who has made it his business to attend to a host of medical evacuations in Morobe, and the Highlands.