Eric Njoroge Kabuba got a call late one evening, not long after confirmed COVID-19 cases started to be reported in Kenya. He was asked to pilot a flight to Mandera County in the far northeastern part of the country, near the borders with Somalia and Ethiopia. This flight would be a little different than the usual ones the 29-year-old pilot does with AMREF Flying Doctors.
Mandera County had two confirmed cases of COVID-19. But, it didn’t have any ventilators to treat patients. And, frontline health workers had little personal protective equipment, such as masks, gowns and gloves, or sanitizer. There was no time to waste, so AMREF Flying Doctors was called in to deliver the goods as quickly as possible. Nairobi to Mandera County takes up to two days to drive; flight time, though, is just over two hours.
“We had very good weather on the flight with some low lying clouds near Mandera that we had to plan around in case we couldn’t land safely. By the time we got there, though, the clouds had lifted and we landed at the military airstrip with a very warm reception from the Cabinet Secretary of Health for Mandera County,” says Eric.
Eric, the flight crew and county government staff unloaded the ventilator and the boxes of sanitizer and personal protective equipment. Then, they carefully loaded 33 blood samples from patients suspected of having COVID-19 into the Pilatus PC12 plane. AMREF Flying Doctors was delivering the blood samples to a lab in Nairobi so Mandera County health officials could get the results quickly.
“Flying the blood samples to Nairobi was definitely a unique experience for me,” says Eric. “We had to take extra precautions to make sure they were packaged properly and we as flight crew were not exposing ourselves to anything.”
The blood samples were analyzed the following day, and four were confirmed to be positive for COVID-19. Mandera County was notified right away, enabling health workers to follow up with treatment and contact tracing.
Although Eric has had lots of experience as an AMREF Flying Doctors pilot, having worked with them full-time since 2017, he says this trip to Mandera County in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in Kenya was humbling. “Knowing that I had a part to play in the whole pandemic, making sure that we got help to people and we were able to change the lives of an entire County considering how remote it is. Knowing the impact we had and that the two patients already confirmed with COVID-19 virus were able to get help with the ventilator. Knowing that I’ve been able to help someone out there and their family. It’s a nice feeling being part of that.”
Eric admits that piloting flights like this and others in the time of a global pandemic concerns him. He’s on the front line, and knows his work can put him and his family in danger. “We are very well protected; as a company AMREF Flying Doctors has really gone out of its way to make sure everyone is safe but once we are out there, the people you interact with, it only takes one person who is carrying COVID-19 for you to contract the disease. For me, that is my greatest concern. It could be somewhere on my commute to work; it could be with a patient we are transferring. I do have that fear of contracting it and bringing it back to my family.”
Despite the new risks he faces, Eric is committed to doing his part during the COVID-19 pandemic. And, he’s staying positive as Kenya faces this new challenge. “As a nation, I hope we are able to slow down the spread of the disease while the search of the vaccine continues.”