Amazon Medivac, from Bo Keely

February 4, 2013 |

 A shout went up on the Rio Marañon bank at Sanamariza, Peru, this morning and an elderly man took off his hat and passed it among the citizens milling on the muddy bank. When the hat got to me I asked why, and it was explained as the Peruvian version of a speedboat zipped around the bend and rammed the shore in the standard docking. This was a medevac of a sick child.

I had been stranded awaiting the weekly Launch to escape this high jungle town down to the lower Amazon, and the sick boy was my ticket out. I passed the hat without dropping a coin, but approached the captain climbing out the boat and asked if he was going downriver to San Lorenzo to which he brightened at the prospect of a paying fare and told me to sit tight for thirty minutes.

He returned gingerly hoisting an IV drip of Suero fluid above the head of a teen in a white smock, the town nurse, who cradled an eight-year old boy as the fluid dripped at a drop a second through the clear IV tube and well-taped needle into a vein on the top of his wrist. They picked a way down the ten-foot bank into the waiting rapido boot, followed by the bedraggled mother and fathered, and then by me, and then a mysterious senorita with the best legs in the Amazon who forgot to put on her underpants.

The rapido is the size of a tin rowboat with a sizeable 40hp Johnson outboard motor and a white shade canopy. The nurse inserted a needle into the IV tube and slowly injected about three CC's over one minute of a drug he wouldn't identify, though he said the patient had weathered a high fever for four days and very sore throat. I could see no other symptoms and the first thought was tonsillitis, an English word that no one recognized. The youth's eyes rolled in the sockets with nearly zero consciousness.

The drug must have been a sedative to have waited until the second before departure to inject… and so slowly. It got a boost when the captain tugged the motor start cord prematurely and the last third of the medicine jerked into the child's vein. The nurse climbed out the boat instructing no one in particular to keep the IV at a drop a second, and scampered up the bank.

The patient had no jacket, no blanket to cover his feverish body. I sat in front to break the wind and looked over everyone. The strikingly handsome people of this region are Peru's former head hunters and the only tribe in the nation to remain unconquered through history. Five percent have single thumbs on one hand or the other that is an apparent genetic recessive display looking more like a big toe than a big toe looks like a big toe, while their other thumbs are normal.

The mother dropped her blouse and began to breast feed her other child who twisted the dark nipple hungrily, the long-legged senorita stared at me, likely the first Caucasian she had seen except on TV, and I took the sick boy's pulse at 80 beats a minute, but strong, and only his fevered brow was a worry.

The 20' boat accelerated to 25mph down the quarter-mile wide Rio Marañon as the white tarp bobbed up and down on the captains' hair where a foot dark halo was rubbed into the fabric. To this day I cannot explain why a few minutes later he chose to veer off the wide river into a shortcut stream. In seconds weeds grabbed the propeller, the boat scrapped stream bottom, the motor conked and we were set adrift in the 5mph current. The rowboat spun like a pinwheel, and everyone looked perplexed but stared vacantly.

'Where are the life jackets?' I hollered over the passengers to the captain, who shrugged.
'Where is the paddle?' I yelled. He stooped and ripped a slat out the boat bottom and began paddling to straighten the boat. The father did the same, and so did I, as the mother continued to breast feed her baby to keep it from crying during the dizzying spin, and the long-legged girl shut her eyes.

Thunder clapped. It began to drizzle. The boat struck a bank sharply and the IV quart bottle cap twisted open and spilled onto the patient. Mother pulled a red-and-white checkered tablecloth and covered her sick child just before nature´s storm hit hard.

We needed the motor to escape the twirl. I yanked a 5' long floorboard and a bit river wise from the past two weeks along Amazon tributaries stood on the bow as I had observed and plunged the slat repeatedly into the water on either side of the boat until it struck bottom, lifted it out and pointed the captain the deep water. The propeller needed 16'' clearance to miss the river bottom, and the plummet found it.

The boat spun for fifteen minutes, but now the captain cranked the motor and we emptied back into the greater Marañon.
In an hour the storm abated, and an hour later the boy's fever broke likely due to the rehydration and sedative. In one hour more we docked at San Lorenzo near the hospital and the mother and father sped their now conscious boy away. He smiled at me, I nodded and paid the captain $50 for my fare, and stepped into the new town.





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