The lifeblood of an Ebola virus treatment center is much like a heartbeat — lots of blood, lots of oxygen. Still, many of the Ebola patients in Sierra Leone have lost a lot of blood. Many — especially the female patients — have been flown across the country in air ambulances to the capital, Freetown, for treatment.
Treating an Ebola patient in an air ambulance is not cheap, and the facilities to operate them are few and far between. The cost of one, which accommodates two patients, is $42,660 — the average monthly salary of a Freetown resident. No airline would want to fly these patients. That’s where the helicopters come in.
About 35 companies offer helicopter rides to Ebola patients in West Africa, often charging upward of $30,000 for the ride. They are flown to public hospitals or private ones not equipped to treat Ebola patients, where skilled medical care awaits them.
But the staff of the International Assistance Trust, a U.S.-based nonprofit that tries to help the hospital in Kenema, Sierra Leone, where two young girls were treated for the virus in early August, is struggling to pay the remaining costs on their own.
The most basic challenge for the group is having access to the helicopter ride. The ambulance it uses has been unable to go up to Freetown because of the lack of drivers. It has no gear and has been using an outdated system of loading the patient and two attendants on a ramp. Some of those arrangements are, however, making progress.
The International Assistance Trust’s longest-serving staff member, Dr. David Kennedy, said the aircraft company has created a flyer for when the helicopter is meant to land. With the flight attendant strapped in, Dr. Kennedy was able to lower a stretcher onto the helicopter — but he said the company needs to get everything in place to send two helicopter flights per week to Kenema.
“We are not getting enough movement of the aircraft to allow us to move any patient,” he said. “They don’t have regular traffic of their aircraft.”
Every air ambulance flight represents $15,000 in cost, according to Lanre Olanipekun, president of Sherpas HeliServices, the company that owns the EC130 helicopter. (That’s about $250,000 a year for total air ambulance costs.) For a patient to fly on the helicopter, Sherpas Helicopters charges a base fee of $2,000 per person. For more serious cases, the company also gets extra reimbursement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Mr. Olanipekun described himself as “very fortunate” to have rented the helicopter from Island Aviation out of New York, which owns 14 EC130s.
The cost of providing the helicopter flight to Kenema “is not covered as it should be” by the CDC, said Mr. Olanipekun, who was the first African-born owner of an Island Aviation helicopter and has been flying nonstop since the 1980s. He has had to pass a lot of the costs along to the organization he runs, the International Assistance Trust.
The International Assistance Trust has helped Sherpas Helicopters pay up for the helicopters, but there is no way to pay them all back — or even to pay for much more than the first trip. Of the one-fourth of patients who initially arrive in Kenema for treatment, more than half return to Freetown and many more become sick, losing a third of their body fluids during the flight.
As a precaution, the International Assistance Trust’s staff has been using Kenema’s hospital with staff that can transport Ebola patients on a regular basis to stay out of the way.
But that leaves Freetown’s main public hospital, Redemption Hospital, unable to accept patients for days.
The International Assistance Trust’s transport costs for the two Sierra Leonean patients in its care — now visiting the United States with their families — rose to $22,000, from the $11,000 owed to them initially.
The International Assistance Trust could rent another air ambulance, but unlike Sherpas Helicopters, it doesn’t have the licenses to operate in the United States.
Staffers and doctors at the organization, which was founded in 2009 by a former chief of staff at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are writing their own checks to pay the helicopter company. So far, they have been able to pay the upfront expenses for just one flight, to Kenema on Oct. 2.