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News | July 28, 2010

Joint effort saves life of Honduran teen

By Tech. Sgt. Benjamin Rojek Joint Task Force-Bravo Public Affairs

Comic book heroes, from Green Lantern to Wolverine, perform superhuman feats in order to save lives.

While they may not be gifted with supernatural powers, the extraordinary efforts of the Honduran government, Joint Task Force-Bravo and the Ruth Paz Foundation recently saved the life of a 16-year-old Honduran boy.

Eli Arevalo was doing construction work on his house June 18 when he stepped on a high voltage cable. He suffered electrical burns over 100 percent of his body surface, the worst being the third-degree burns on his right leg. According to doctors at the Medical Element here, patients with 60 percent surface burns rarely live through it.

The teenager was taken to Hospital Escuela in Tegucigalpa, Honduras' capital, to get treatment for his wounds. While the hospital staff there did all they could for him, including saving his leg, Eli was in such a condition that he had to have a pediatrician bedside 24 hours a day, said Dr. Ricardo Avilés, a medical liaison officer with the MEDEL here. He needed a transfer.

Enter Dr. Omar Mejia, the chief of plastic surgery for Hospital Escuela and the president of the Foundation for Burnt Children. He saw that Eli needed more significant treatment, Dr. Avilés said, and contacted the Permanent Contingency Committee of Honduras, or COPECO, which is the equivalent of the U.S.'s Federal Emergency Management Agency. From there, Iris Moncada, of COPECO, coordinated with JTF-Bravo to move Eli from his hospital in Tegucigalpa.

While all of this was going on, the Ruth Paz Foundation worked on getting donors to fund a medical evacuation for Eli from San Pedro Sula, which is 107 miles from Tegucigalpa, to the Shriners Hospital in Boston, Mass., which had agreed to receive the teen. Due to weather and sometimes the time at which the air ambulance has to land, the pilots prefer coming to San Pedro Sula, said Peggy Kipps, the executive director of the Ruth Paz Foundation.

"We have been helping burned children (in Honduras) since Mrs. Paz, a U.S. citizen, started this about 40 years ago from her home," said Ms. Kipps. "Last year we sent 56 children to the USA to receive medical treatment."

As the evacuation to Boston was being finalized, COPECO sent a request June 23 to JTF-Bravo civil affairs to evacuate Eli via helicopter so he could safely and quickly make it to San Pedro Sula. That's when Dr. Avilés took charge.

"This would not have been possible without Dr. Avilés and his coordination," said Maj. Patricia Jaeckel, the former MEDEL operations officer. "He put all the organizations involved in synch. It blows my mind."

Dr. Avilés coordinated efforts between the JTF-Bravo leadership, 1-228th Aviation Regiment, COPECO, Ruth Paz Foundation and Hospital Escuela to ensure the safe evacuation of Eli. But, just as in any good superhero story, it wasn't easy.

First, once the request was put in for the helicopter support, Dr. Avilés had to verify that Eli's condition warranted using JTF-Bravo resources.

"If the life, limbs or eyes are at risk, JTF-Bravo can launch a helicopter," the doctor said. "For Eli, his limb was definitely at risk and his life might have been at risk in 48 hours."

By June 24, the helicopter evacuation was approved by JTF-Bravo leadership and the 1-228th was put on stand-by to launch June 26. The second challenge came, however, with the arrival of Tropical Storm Alex. At 10 a.m. June 25, the notice came down that the 1-228th had a five hour window in which to move Eli. They had to beat the bad weather, which moved in like a villain trying to thwart the heroes' plans.

The aviation regiment was ready by noon.

"The 1-228th was phenomenal," said Major Jaeckel.

While the 1-228th worked with the Honduran Air Force to land at the airport in Tegucigalpa, the third challenge came in the form of the World Cup, said Dr. Avilés. Vehicles and people filled the streets, slowing down the ambulance bringing Eli from Hospital Escuela to the airport. A drive that should have been less than 20 minutes now took almost an hour. Eli was kept in stable condition, though, and made it to the evacuation point without incident.

Once en route to San Pedro Sula, Dr. Avilés and the JTF-Bravo team coordinated with the Honduran Army's 105th Infantry Brigade to allow them to land the helicopter at a soccer field around the corner from the National Public Hospital. A landing at the San Pedro Sula airfield would have meant more traffic and a 30 minute drive.

Even though the evacuation team now had Eli in place for his move to Boston, the weather continued to be a factor they had to contend with. The plane which was to transport Eli to the U.S. was supposed to be in place by 2 p.m., but was delayed until 10 p.m. And though Eli remained stable and everyone was ready to get him aboard, the rain was coming down too hard to move the teen from the airport to the plane.

"We brought in a bunch of umbrellas," Dr. Avilés said. "That was enough to cover him until we got to the plane."

By 11 p.m. June 25, Eli was on his way to Boston and the specialists of the Shriners Hospital. He is still in very critical condition, Ms. Kipps said.

"(The doctors are) trying to save his leg," she said. "(The burns have) destroyed all his muscle on the leg ... they are trying really hard to save it."

Eli's story is not yet over, and neither is the mission of medical personnel here. Working hand-in-hand with Honduran government and medical agencies, as well as local and international non-profit organizations, the Medical Element, 1-228th Aviation Regiment and all of Team Bravo are sowing the seeds of friendship and reaping the benefits of good relationships, Major Jaeckel said.

"That's why we're here," she said. "People give their time and talents to benefit others.

"It's exciting," she added.

Just like any good superhero story.