By Rick Ohanesian, MD
The Flying Samaritans is an all-volunteer service organization that provides medical, dental and other health services to dedicated clinics in the Baja peninsula in Mexico. We fly staff and supplies in using mostly single-engine privately owned airplanes from Arizona to Mexico and back in a 3-day weekend once a month.
The Phoenix chapter includes volunteers who live all over, from Flagstaff to Tucson. We have Physicians, Dentists, Physicans Assistants, Nurse Practitioners, Optometrists, Chiropractors, Nurses, Pharmacists, Dental Hygienists, Dental Assistants, Interpreters, sometimes medical students, and of course, Pilots.
Other Flying Samaritans chapters are based in Tucson and California. Each chapter has it’s own clinic, or clinics, staffed over the years.
Our clinic is in the small fishing village of Puerto Adolfo Lopez Mateos, on the pacific coast of the southern Baja. The only industry in town is a cannery that processes fish and vegetables. There is seasonal whale watching in the early spring too, but the cannery provides almost all of the town’s economic base.
The cannery also allows us use of their unpaved airstrip, and we built our clinic building at the end of the airstrip just feet from the water. We typically see 250-350 patient visits in one day. Sometimes we have additional medical staffing from a similar organization, the Aeromedicos, from Santa Barbara, California. We work closely with the local medical system, and volunteer physicians and dentists who live in the area to augment our Arizona clinic staff.
Our patients range from newborn to elderly and have access to basic pediatric, general medical, Ob-Gyn, Dental, Optometric, and Chiropractic services. Our dental side is always especially busy and the four dental chairs run continuously all day.
A typical clinic weekend starts on Friday morning when pilots at various airports in Arizona load their clinic volunteers and head south. We land first in Guaymas, clear Mexican customs and immigration, fill up on fuel, and then take off again for Mulege across the Sea of Cortez. We overnight in Mulege at a hotel that conveniently has an unpaved airstrip. There is no accommodation for our large group in the clinic town further south, so overnight stays in Mulege and occasionally Loreto are required. We simply land, taxi to the hotel gate, and walk about 50 feet to check in for the night. As our series of planes lands, everyone gets together and clinic planning mixes with socializing, allowing us time to catch up with people we only ever see on these clinic trips.
Early Saturday morning our clinic liaison in Lopez Mateos notifies us by phone when the morning fog layer has cleared. Off we goagain, for the 45-60 min flight over some very rugged and isolated terrain to the clinic airstrip.
Upon arrival of the planes, patients are already waiting for us. Local volunteers have done much preparation, and all the patients have been given colored and numbered cards for the various clinics – Adult medicine, Pediatrics, Ob-Gyn, Dental, etc. They also have the clinic building already open, supplied, and ready to go.
We see patients all day. Nurses up front do triage, then pass the patients to the medical providers in the back. When done with the provider visit, the patients then proceed to the pharmacy window to receive their prescriptions. The clinic is quite busy and many of the patients see more than one provider. Our separate secure pharmacy room dispenses common prescription medications sufficient to last until the next clinic. The patients keep their own medical charts, and bring them to each visit, giving both local medical providers and us a record of their treatment and medication history.
On completion of patient care, we load up in the planes again and fly back to our hotel in Mulege for one more night. Sunday morning we return to Guaymas to re-fuel, and then fly back home. We usually clear US Customs & Immigration in Nogales, then spread out to our original departure airstrips all over Arizona.
The Flying Samaritans is all volunteer, and each of us pays all his or her trip expenses. Many volunteers provide supplies that are purchased or donated for use at the clinic.
The Samaritans, or “Sams” is a great group of people. All are generous and caring individuals who donate their health care and other skills for the benefit of others through our clinics. The patient population we care for is overwhelmingly appreciative of what we do, and over time, as we see the same patients again and again, hugs are common greetings when we arrive for each clinic.
More information is available at the website, flyingsamaritans.com.
Dr. Ohanesian practices Obstetrics & Gynecology for Prescott Women’s Clinic in Prescott and Prescott Valley. He has been a Flying Samaritans volunteer physician for 9 years.