The pilots of the Patrulla Aérea Civil Colombiana are an impressive bunch: they can fly, obviously, and beyond that they even have their own planes. When I first met them on the manicured lawns of Guaymaral airport, they were chuffing on mighty Cohibas and tucking into thick, steak sandwiches. It was 7 am.

More impressive yet, these volunteers were waiting to climb into their tiny planes and take off into the tempestuous sky. Their destination was the temporary hospital the group had set up in Uribe, Meta.

Delayed by the filthy weather, we plucky members of the press attempted to think about something – anything – other than disappearing into the lashing rain. The pilots, meanwhile, retained their reassuring Zen-like calm. Once the deluge had cleared to reveal a depressing grey expanse, we climbed aboard our eight-seater, taxied past the police helicopters and on to the runway. A moment’s reflection, a sharp pull and we were in the air.

As we were buffeted about between the mountains flanking Bogotá, it became obvious that a little turbulence goes a long way in a small propeller plane.

To the south of the city, as we swung between isolated rain clouds in the now-blue sky, the pilot, Camilo Sáenz, tapped my arm and pointed down to the verdant canyons of La Macarena’s Caño Cristales. It’s not like this on a 747; by comparison, there’s as much excitement to be had on a conventional flight as sitting in the waiting room. Soon enough, we had landed with a gentle bump in the sumptuous warmth of Uribe, as three men cantered past the airstrip.

Dwarfing the operations of Australia’s flying doctors, when the Patrulla lands, it brings experts on a comprehensive list of ailments. In Uribe, they were particularly concentrating on hernias, pterygium and cancer of the cervix.

A school building had been transformed into an optometrists’ consultation room. Since the Patrulla had arrived, the entire area’s schoolchildren had had their eyes tested here. Additionally, the area’s adults had access to check-ups using donated Japanese equipment. Those requiring the help were given medication and reading glasses.

Doctors attend a patient in La Uribe, Meta.
Doctors attend a patient in La Uribe, Meta.

Both patients and doctors knew time and space was of the essence, every inch of the medical center on the plaza was in use. Pre- and post-operation patients draped in towels lined the corridors. Waiting rooms had become recovery rooms and were full of patients.

One of the doctors, Fabio Grondas explained the previous day’s timetable: he’d started operating at 5 pm and finished at 4 am. Despite the lack of sleep, he explained with remarkable bonhomie how he had restarted at 9 am. It was now lunchtime on Saturday and he had performed 40 operations.

Uribe is not usually blessed with such a generous dose of doctors and they were obviously needed. About 20 women, children and men waited outside the medical center. To ease the boredom, one of the nurses handed out coloring pencils and paper to the delight of the children and relief of their parents.

Patrulla regular, Dr. Sindy Bucheli, said most those waiting outside would suffer from minor ailments, such as breathing infections, which are easily cured but would otherwise go untreated. She expected that their patients “don’t normally have access to medical attention, especially young women and children”.

The vivacious general practitioner and pediatrician explained the challenge facing those who live outside the major cities to access health care. For poor people in rural areas, it can be impossible to even find the money to cover the cost of travel and accommodation.

This deficit in medical assistance  was emphasized by Dr. Angélica Vélez Fernández. She had arrived in Uribe 10 days before the Patrulla proper to arrange the logistics of all the doctors, patients and equipment. Since she had landed, some 38 medical experts – including doctors, nurses and anesthetists- with 2,000 kilos of medicine had descended on the town.

With boundless energy, Angélica had found time to study dozens of scans looking for women with the first signs of untreated cervical cancer. She then used radio announcements and local medical representatives to contact the at-danger women and urge them to contact the Patrulla.

That morning, one of her new patients had told her: “Thank you for calling me and for the surgery you are going to do because I have been a year without treatment and I don’t have the money to go elsewhere.”

As a result of her research, 12 women were operated on over the weekend. Given that Angélica has been doing this at one or two destinations every month for four years, her actions alone have saved hundreds of women. While Angélica has an infectious en- thusiasm for the Patrulla’s work, I wondered if it was dangerous or they had ever had any run-ins work with any of the conflict’s actors. “We just treat everyone,” she said. “We can hardly ask people if they’re members of the Farc.”

“Besides, I love the small planes and divine views of the mountains,” she laughed.

For a certain type of pilot, the attraction of helping other people while doing something you love is obvious. Hernán Acevedo has been involved for as long as he can remember. His father was one of the Patrulla’s founding members and he remembers ac- companying him as a small boy and being charged with dividing pills into individual doses.

Now one of the pilots and a Patrulla board member, Hernán enthuses about the developments: “When they started it could only provide medical consultations, now we do surgeries; we have saved a lot of people, it’s really amazing.”

While Hernán is unusual in being born into the Patrulla; my pilot, Camilo, initially had to be roped in. Hernán had rung him in an emergency: a girl in La Macarena, Meta, was bleeding heavily and the Patrulla desperately needed a fast plane to fly her to Bogotá or she would die.

Camilo jumped in his plane, collected the girl and her life was saved. Inspired, he joined the Patrulla and is now the president. Under him, the organization can call on 43 pilots among its 500 volunteers. During the weekend they were in Uribe, 1,120 people saw a doctor and 120 people received surgery; every year, the Patrulla treats 20,000 patients. And it’s growing.

To survive, the Patrulla is entirely reliant on donations. If you think you could offer financial assistance, time and skills or essential items such as drugs, equipment or aviation help, please contact them. They are also interested in offering education, agriculture and rights services in the future.

www.patrullaaerea.org