Repatriation Stories: a psychiatric emergency in Africa


Repatriation Stories: a psychiatric emergency in Africa

If you know anything about medical transports, you probably know they often happen at speed. An accident occurs in a foreign country… the patient’s family calls EMS Air Ambulance & Medical Repatriation for help… 48 hours later, they’re safely back in their home country for treatment.

But that isn’t always how things work out. Sometimes the complexity of a case means the transport can take months of communication, planning and negotiations before it can go ahead.

This is how it was for Jan and Isa, a couple from the Netherlands whose son suffered a psychiatric breakdown while working in north Africa. This is their family’s story.

A new life in Africa

Jan and Isa lived in Holland, not far from their son Peter, his wife Lieke*, and their young grandchildren. Three years ago, however, Peter and Lieke decided to move to north Africa for work. Peter’s job involved social care with some of the country’s poorest families. The couple were excited about the move and, initially, things went well. Sometime later, however, Jan and Isa realised the family were experiencing some serious problems.

A mental health crisis

When Lieke spoke to Jan and Isa over the phone, she explained the situation. It turned out she was becoming increasingly concerned about Peter’s mental health. For some time, he’d been acting out of character – sometimes becoming confused, then suffering from what seemed to be delusions. Understandably, Lieke was feeling very isolated and wasn’t sure what to do next.

A shock diagnosis

Over the coming weeks, the situation deteriorated. Peter stopped eating and became very ill. Eventually, he collapsed and was rushed to hospital. He recovered, only for the pattern to repeat itself. In desperation, Jan and Isa flew to the hospital where Peter was being treated for the second time – which was when the doctors made a shock discovery. Brain scans showed he was suffering from a tumour; the location of the tumour meant that it had, clearly, been causing his psychiatric issues.

Getting Peter home

Armed with a diagnosis, the whole family was desperate for Peter to fly home to Holland for treatment. They were also becoming increasingly worried about the medical care he was receiving in Africa. For almost six months, Jan and Isa had been in touch with EMS about repatriating Peter. With his physical and mental health problems, there was no way the authorities would allow him to return on a regular flight. So the best option was a private air ambulance. But, in his confused state of mind, Peter was refusing to come home.

Never give up!

In conversation with Jan and Isa, EMS advised the family to stay in close touch with both us and the Dutch embassy, where we had good links with the consular officials. The breakthrough finally came when the family were able to secure legal power of attorney over Peter to bring him home. Within hours of their call, we had mobilised a team of paramedics for a flight to Africa. We asked our team to go direct to the hospital and collect Peter and take him back to the airport by ambulance. In the meantime, we called the Dutch receiving hospital to ensure a bed would be ready for Peter’s arrival. In the event, Peter was happy to return with our doctors, and the journey back to the Netherlands went very smoothly. Peter is now back with his family and receiving treatment from the doctors in the Netherlands.

For EMS operations expert Helma Ligtenbarg, Jan and Isa’s case shows the importance of keeping the channels of communication open on a medical transport – and of staying persistent:

“Some repatriations – especially ones involving psychiatric patients – can take a long time to happen, but the essential thing is to not give up,” she explains. “By staying in close contact with Jan and Isa and with the embassy and hospitals, we were able to bring their case to a positive conclusion after months of careful planning and negotiation.”

* Names withheld.

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