Ping Domtta mid-flight (credit: Annelie Edsmyr)
Since 2016, MAF pilot Lungpinglak Domtta – aka ‘Ping’ – has been serving remote communities all over the world. Today, he clocked up 2,000 flight hours in Timor-Leste where MAF operates the only air ambulance service in the country. Medevacs are all in a day’s work for Ping, but for the people of Timor-Leste – one of Asia’s least developed countries – it’s a matter of life and death
For the past two years, Ping has been serving the people of Timor-Leste – Asia’s newest country, which is set to join the World Trade Organisation this year.
The bloody struggle for independence from Indonesia in 2002 left the country in a fragile state. Today – according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) – Timor-Leste has one of the highest malnutrition rates in the world, and there’s approximately only one nurse /midwife for every 1,000 people.
There is a severe shortage of doctors & nurses in Timor-Leste (credit: SHARE Int’l)
District health centres offering very basic medical care are scattered around the country, but for more advanced treatment, patients must travel to ‘Hospital Nacional Guido Valadares’ (HNGV) in the capital Dili – the country’s one and only hospital serving a population of 1.3 million people.
HNGV however, is no silver bullet. In MAF UK’s upcoming ‘Flying for Life’ podcast episode, Ping tells Josh Carter about the reality of Timor-Leste’s health care system:
‘Just the other week, MAF followed up a patient in hospital who needed immediate treatment for an injured leg following an accident. I was really sad to hear that he couldn’t have any surgery yet because they don’t have enough blood in the blood bank.’
Ping Domtta, MAF pilot in Timor-Leste
MAF on call seven days a week
Ping (far left) and the rest of the MAF team in Timor-Leste (credit: Ping Domtta)
2 MAF planes serve Timor-Leste – one is on standby for medevacs (credit: Annelie Edsmyr)
Since 2007, MAF has been working with Timor-Leste’s Ministry of Health, providing the only air ambulance service in the whole country. There are eight district airstrips around the country, which MAF connects to.
In addition to charter flights, Ping regularly flies patients in need of urgent medical care from the district health centres to HNGV. Doctors from the district health centres trigger these medevac (medical evacuation) requests.
Ping medevacs patient from Los Palos to Dili during Covid-19 (credit: Varghese Philip)
MAF pilots carry out around 250 medevacs in Timor-Leste every year. MAF can receive up to three medevac call-outs per day. Of MAF’s two aircraft based in Dili, one is always on standby for medevacs. All charter flights are booked on the understanding that medevacs take priority over any other flight.
Every patient is accompanied by a doctor or nurse to & from HNGV (credit: Mark Hewes)
Every medevac is accompanied by a nurse or doctor provided by the Ministry of Health. All medevacs are coordinated with district ambulances who take patients to the airports for MAF to pick up and drop off.
MAF operates a daily service Monday to Sunday but does not operate night flights in Timor-Leste due to limited airport lighting.
Medevacs are coordinated with local ambulance services like this one from Suai to Dili (credit: Mark Hewes)
Without MAF, 6-year-old Bendito would have died
Ping has just completed his 151st medevac in Timor-Leste. He recalls the story of 6-year-old Bendito – a medevac patient who contracted severe dengue fever last April and nearly died.
Atauro Island can only be reached by MAF plane or by boat (credit: Mark Hewes)
Bendito lives on Atauro Island off the north coast of Dili. Without MAF’s 15-minute flight to hospital, he would have had to endure a three-hour uncomfortable, unreliable ferry:
‘Dengue fever is caused by mosquito bites. When it’s bad, you can get a severe fever and start bleeding. Bendito was bleeding from his nose, so his mother took him to the district health centre where he was diagnosed. His condition was severe and he needed to be transferred to the main HNGV hospital in Dili.
‘The district health centre’s ambulance team contacted us. When Bendito’s mother saw MAF’s plane landing, she was relieved that her son was going to get better treatment. Bendito would have died without proper medical care.’
MAF medevacked Bendito who nearly died of severe dengue fever (credit: Lobitos Alves)
But this wasn’t the first time Bendito needed MAF explains Ping:
‘We found out that this was his third time flying with MAF. The first time he had severe abdominal pain and MAF’s flight saved his life, then we flew him a second time when he had a stomach problem.
Bendito has since made a full recovery.
Not always a happy ending
For many Timorese like Bendito, MAF is a lifesaver, but sadly, a medevac doesn’t always have a happy ending sighs Ping:
‘This is my most memorable medevac but also one of the hardest. I was called to transfer a pregnant woman from Same who was overdue for delivery.
‘Same is about a 25-minute flight from Dili and can be challenging because of the mountains. I was new to the country, so I went with a colleague. When we landed, we met the ambulance and transferred the patient to the aircraft.
‘On board, before take-off, I sensed that something was happening and five minutes later, the baby was born inside the plane. I got excited for a moment, but the baby was stillborn. The nurse gave the baby to the mother’s sister and when the baby didn’t respond, she started crying. The mother survived, but the baby didn’t.’
The baby was born stillborn behind a screen. (credit: Ping Domtta)
In the face of something so tragic, Ping tells Josh he has to remain strong:
‘At the end of the day I know that I’m here to serve the people, but I have to maintain my professionalism. These things happen. I have to fly back the plane, so I have to keep myself strong, otherwise it will impact my flight.’
70% of Timor-Leste is rural and mountainous with bad roads (credit: Mark Hewes)
Supporting a unique geography
70% of Timorese live in rural areas and are isolated by mountainous terrain and bad roads (source: WHO). Islanders can be cut off by rough seas. Navigating this geography is an additional challenge for the Timorese says Ping:
‘That geography makes connectivity by road difficult. When we fly in a straight line, it takes around half an hour as opposed to 5 or 6 hours of driving on winding roads. What may take an hour by road in the West, could take around 3.5 hours here – triple the time!
‘The weather also makes it hard. During the wet season, the land isn’t stable so there are landslides and roads are cut off making it hard for people to connect to the districts. Rough seas can cause boat cancellations, so islanders are totally disconnected from the mainland.’
MAF reaches Oecusse in 45 mins instead of many hours by sea or road (credit: Jason Job)
Part of Timor-Leste – Oecusse – is surrounded by neighbouring Indonesia and the Savu Sea. Without MAF, this exclave would be very difficult to reach explains Ping:
‘As a portion of Timor-Leste is in the middle of Indonesia, if you were to go by road (approx. eight hours by bus), you would have to go through immigration and customs at the border. The other way is an overnight boat journey (approx. 12 hours). With MAF it takes about 45 minutes.
‘We get a lot of medevac calls from Oecusse. Transporting critical patients overnight by boat is unimaginable, so MAF is crucial for those communities. We also support them in cases of death when the coffin has to be transferred to the other side of the country. MAF are the only means of doing this quickly, otherwise, it’s an overnight boat journey. I have done a couple of coffin flights. MAF plays a vital role there.
‘In terms of medevacs, MAF makes a huge difference! We save time and trouble!’
Despite the challenges, Ping still loves his job:
‘As a pilot, it gives me a huge sense of joy and satisfaction to be able to help people in need, especially when they appreciate us and thank us for what we have done. I feel very rewarded at the end of the day.’
Ping during his time in Kenya (credit: Mark Hewes)
Join Ping on MAF UK’s ‘Flying for Life’ podcast with Josh Carter. This latest episode explores medevacs and access to healthcare in Timor-Leste, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Papua New Guinea. Ping is joined by Dr Diana Zwijnenburg and Maud Kells OBE.
The Flying for Life podcast is a free resource and part of MAF’s ‘He Saw It Was Good’ Bible Study Series, which explores how Christians can support sustainable development.