Last week I had the opportunity to travel with the Flying Samaritans to one of the medical clinics they staff, in Baja, Mexico. In addition to helping out some very nice people, I had a chance to meet and learn about the Flying Samaritans and their work in Baja. I could not have imagined a better way to spend my time and the trip was really amazing. So amazing that I am going back in March!
My trip started early in the morning, meeting my pilot and fellow passengers at a private terminal, in Arizona. We were taking the 2-3 hour flight to El Rosario, Baja Mexico in a small, private plane…a six seater. This was to be my first time in a plane of this size and I was quite excite and a little nervous. I have to admit that I am a nervous flier. After meeting my pilot, Wally, all my fears melted away. Wally had been flying for more than 25 years and was a veteran of thousands of trips to Mexico. I immediately felt in good hands. My fellow passengers included Wally’s wife Judy and my wife, Katerina. Wally and Judy have been Flying Sams volunteers for many years and were quite cool people. We immediately felt relaxed and excited for our trip. After loading the plane with our bags and some medical supplies for the clinic, we were off!
For those who have never flown in a smaller plane, take off is an exhilarating experience! As I mentioned before, I am a nervous flier, especially in a large commercial plane. I found myself really enjoying the flight with Wally! We quickly climbed to an altitude of around 8-9000 feet and began to see the sunrise over the desert as we headed to Mexico! Our first stop was the city of Puerto Penasco (Rocky point) to re-fuel and clear Mexican customs. This was about a one hour flight and I honestly loved every minute of it! I felt like a kid, glued to the window looking out and around at everything I could see! Landing in Rock Point was very cool because they had a new airport. This airport consisted mainly of a small terminal and a fabric roof stretched over the portable walls. Still, they had aviation gas and provided a point to clear customs.
As we left Rocky Point, we received our “over water safety briefing” because we were about to fly over the Gulf of California. Our plane was equipped with a life raft and flotation devices and we were told how and when to use them. Fortunately, this was not required! After another hour of flight, we landed at the site of the clinic in El Rosario, Baja Mexico. This runway was a very well maintained landing strip that was paved. Once on the ground we got to see several other Flying Sams planes landing and were able to meet the rest of the crew who is staffing the clinic. The Flying Sams kept several vehicles at the landing strip and after we offloaded the planes, we piled into the vans for the 20 minute drive to the city and the clinic.
Who are “The Sams”?
The Flying Samaritans is actually a fairly large organization that spans several states. Originally started back in the early 1960’s by a group of doctors and pilots who were flying back from Cabo San Lucas, Mexico to San Diego. Apparently they ran into some rough weather and had to make a unexpected landing in the town of El Rosario, Baja. Once on the ground, they were greated by the local matriarch and restaurant owner named “Mama Espinoza“. Upon hearing that the passengers were physicians, Mama Espinoza asked if they would not mind seeing a few of the local people who were very sick. Always thinking of her community, Mama arranged for the patients to be brought to her house and they were literally examined on her kitchen table. The next morning, the pilot and physicians flew on to home but a lasting impression was obviously made. A few weeks later the pilot and doctors returned to treat some of the locals and follow up on their previous cases they had seen. They had begun to gather supplies for their next visit and went a bit more ready to treat patients. The clinic in El Rosario was born! Since that first encounter, “the Sams” has grown into a large network of pilots, health care providers and helpers in several states and numerous cities. Each city that has a Sams group staffs a separate clinic in a unique place in Baja, Mexico. My city of Tucson, Arizona staffs two clinics: the Original Clinic in El Rosario and another in Laguna San Ignacio. The Phoenix chapter staffs another, while the cities in California all staff separate clinics, as well. All in all, the Sams staff 19 clinics in Baja with over 1500 volunteers coming from 10 different chapters. Also, on my visit I had a chance to hear all about this wonderful history directly from Mama Espinoza who is 104 years old and still very sharp!
At the Clinic
We arrived at the clinic around 09:00 and immediately saw a line of patients waiting to be seen. Our clinic featured a dental staff and a medical staff to attend to needs of the patients. I was given a quick orientation and information on what types of medications were available, then shown to my exam room. Triage was handled by the EMTs and we were given a sheet with basic medical history and vitals, including the reason for their visit. Doctor duties were handled by myself and Dr. David, a private pilot himself and veteran of many Baja trips. We had great nursing and pharmacy back up and started seeing patients! I saw a good mix of clinic patients including back pains, urinary tract infections, healing fractures and basic wound infections. One gentleman had a fairly decent lip laceration that had become quite infected. During his previous injury, the week before, he had fractured his front tooth as well. This provided a great chance for the medical and dental team to work together on the same patient. We debrided his infected wound and they attended to his tooth! The pilots were the default construction crew and set to work improving and repairing the clinic structure. After a busy morning, we had a great lunch at Mama Espinoza’s restaurant that included some killer lobster tacos! After a quick break and a walk around town, we set back to seeing the last of the patients. We finished clinic around 16:00/4 pm and headed back to the landing strip. We had to be in the air before dark to make our next stop which was the hotel we are staying at. The hotel was in San Quintin, Baja which was about a 20 minute flight up the Pacific coast.
The flight from El Rosario to San Quintin was wonderful! Wally, our pilot, gave us a real treat flying low over the waves and allowing us to see a wonderful view on the way to the hotel. We landed at a dirt strip and actually ran into another Flying Sams group from California who staffs a clinic in the city of San Quintin. We unloaded and drove to the hotel. After a quick walk on the beach and a clean-up, we all met in the hotel bar to discuss the day and grab some dinner. After dinner we were treated to some drinks and dancing at a local cantina with some of the other volunteers. An early night was required as we were flying back home in the early morning.
Awaking early, we met our fellow volunteers for a great breakfast at the hotel and repacked the planes. Take off from a dirt landing strip was very cool and we were back home by 2pm that same day. I was amazed by my trip and the people I got to meet, both volunteers and patients! HIghlights included some nice little girls who loved to draw on our clinic dry-erase board and also gave me a bracelet, a very nice man with malignant hypertension in an emergent crisis of elevated blood pressure (260/140), lobster tacos and the plane rides! My trip made such an impression that we immediately signed up for another trip, in March!
How to get involved
Anybody looking to help with the Flying Samaritans, have a great adventure, meet wonderful people and help others should look into their local chapters! The Sams always need volunteers of all types and donations to help fund their missions, buy supplies and repair their clinics. I cannot think of a better group to be involved with!