MAF medevacs missionary in South Sudan with acute appendicitis

4th September 2021

Diguna missionary Daniel Zobel (l) and MAF pilot Tobias Meyer (r), chatting to MAF’s Jenny Davies

In the remote village of Lokutok in South Sudan’s Eastern Equatoria State, access to adequate healthcare is severely limited. Daniel Zobel – a missionary with Diguna – could have died from a burst appendix if MAF hadn’t medevacked him to the capital, Juba, for lifesaving surgery. MAF’s Jenny Davies caught up with Daniel during his recovery…

It all started with a ‘really bad pain’ on the right-hand side of Daniel’s abdomen. On the morning of Sunday 29 August, the married father-of-three wondered whether he had eaten something bad, but after Googling his symptoms, he feared it might actually be appendicitis:

‘I had the exact same symptoms that were mentioned but I didn’t want to go to the local clinic because it’s not very well equipped, so I contacted MAF in Juba and asked for a medical evacuation. I didn’t really want to bother MAF because I thought it’s a Sunday and they need rest, but my wife encouraged me to do it because appendicitis can be life threatening.’

Lokutok is situated near mountains, which can be a challenging place to land

Lokutok – a ‘challenging’ place to land

Daniel packed up some things and walked very slowly to his pastor’s house in the village and asked for a lift to Lokutok Airstrip.

Lokutok is based at the foot of a hill near mountains – a difficult place for a plane to land as MAF pilot Tobias Meyer testifies:

‘The village itself is in a nice round shaped valley but it’s close to the mountains. When we fly – just before we turn towards the runway – there’s a hill close by so at times it can be challenging, especially if there’s wind.’

Regardless of the challenges, Daniel was very relieved to see MAF’s incoming plane:

‘I was very happy to see the airplane coming, knowing that there was hope on the way. I was excited to see Tobias. The flight was OK and I was very happy to reach Juba – very thankful.’

Appendicitis and flying – a dangerous combination

For medical conditions like appendicitis, MAF pilots have to fly low to prevent perforation and septic shock as Tobias explains:

‘We flew a bit lower because the pressure difference with high altitudes means there is a greater risk of injury that could be incurred. We stayed low – we were lucky it wasn’t too bumpy. Sometimes, it can be really bumpy at lower altitudes, but this time it went well, and we landed in Juba thirty-five minutes later.’

On arrival in Juba, Daniel had to have a coronavirus test before entering the hospital. Fortunately, he tested negative.

There was discussion about whether Daniel should have surgery in Juba or be flown further to Nairobi in Kenya where medical facilities are more advanced:

‘I was very happy to finally see some doctors who took very good care of me. I got a CT scan, which confirmed appendicitis. That evening, they all agreed I should be operated on in Juba. It wasn’t necessary to fly me down to Nairobi in Kenya, because they had the capability here.’

A night of sheer agony  

The surgery took place on Monday morning, but Daniel had to endure excruciating pain overnight:

‘Sunday night until Monday morning was a very painful time. I couldn’t stand, lie down or sit – it was so painful. The doctor gave me some painkillers and I wondered what would have happened if I was still in my village? I probably would have been exhausted by the pain – it wouldn’t have stopped, I would have been completely finished. I was so relieved I followed my wife’s advice to call on MAF for a medevac.’

In hindsight, it was the right decision to stay put in Juba:

‘My wife told me that the doctors said I wouldn’t have survived the flight to Nairobi because when they opened me up, the appendix was about to burst. The surgery was just in time. If it wasn’t for MAF, I probably would have died – I’m very thankful.’
Daniel Zobel – a missionary with Diguna

For Tobias, it was just another day at the office!

‘The flight for me was just a normal day at the office, but then afterwards hearing Daniel speak about the ‘what ifs?’ makes MAF so relevant. It’s a privilege to serve missionaries like Daniel in this capacity – that’s why MAF is here, to help out when there’s a need.’

God at work

Daniel reflects on his ‘life and death’ situation:

‘Just one WhatsApp conversation asking for help, and basically everything fell into place for me. Everything was organised by MAF or the clinic that helped me. I’m really amazed by God’s grace.

‘I’m glad I got rid of that appendix! I’m feeling much better now. It was probably the darkest experience of my life pain-wise.

‘When I was in the operating theatre, I took much longer to wake from the anaesthetic. In my delirium I asked the doctors, ‘Will I survive or die?’ I remember quoting scripture all the time like ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ and ‘The Lord is my strength and my shield’. It was a strange world I lived through in those six hours.

‘The care, love and patience I received was a great testimony of God’s work and how he used different people with different gifts to help me. I can clearly see the hand of God in all these things.’