Many of the areas where MSF works are barely accessible by road. The rainy season can bring treacherous mud that cars sink into; insecurity can make driving too dangerous. But life-saving supplies still need to reach our hospitals and clinics, and critically ill patients need to be transferred to specialist care. That’s where people like Stella Mwikalicome in…
"Some moments with patients will forever linger in my mind.
Last year we got a call from the team in Malakal, a town in a remote area. A pregnant woman had an obstructed labour – a medical emergency.
She needed a caesarean section to save her life and her baby’s. That meant an urgent transfer to the MSF hospital in Agok, in Abyei Special Administrative Area – over 300 km away.
We arranged the flight.
Later, we coordinated another flight, to bring her and her new baby safely home.
Charting my own path
I’m a deputy flight coordinator for Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF). Flight coordination involves creating flight itineraries, serving as a dispatcher, and many different aspects of flight logistics.
I’ve always been interested in planes. When I was a child, I would look up at the sky in awe. But my parents had different ideas. I’m from Kenya, and my dad wanted me to go into wildlife conservation, while my mum wanted me to be a banker. But eventually, they changed their minds. My dad told me that he would support my career of choice if that meant my happiness.
So I trained in aviation, specialising in operations and dispatch, plus aviation safety and quality.
My journey to MSF
I was working with a local aviation company in Nairobi when I first got a request from MSF. They needed a plane to carry medical supplies. I started getting more MSF requests. Later I found out that MSF also has its own planes. It got me thinking…
I wanted to work for an organisation which tries to make people’s lives better. I saw people working in different organisations who would put a smile on people’s faces – like my sister, who volunteered for a local group that raised funds to help pay children’s school fees.
In 2019, I applied to work with MSF, and in June that year, I joined the team! So far, I’ve done four assignments as a flight coordinator in South Sudan as well as Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In South Sudan, our teams are providing lifesaving medical care. This means responding to disease outbreaks; doing vaccination campaigns; running specialist services for mothers and children, and taking health care out into the community.
Planes are essential for all of these activities. Road transportation is limited here because of poor infrastructure, insecurity, and seasonal floods. Right now I’m working in Old Fangak, a river town where there are no roads or cars, only boats and the airstrip.
In addition to transferring patients, our planes ensure that doctors and essential medical and relief supplies can get to people in need.
One example I won’t forget was in February 2021, when floods in Jonglei and Unity States forced people out of their homes. Many had nothing: not even the basic essential items for living, so MSF arranged flights with relief items, including tents and blankets, as well as medical care.
Violent clashes are a perennial issue in some areas of the country and can lead to multiple people injured and in urgent need of medical care at once. I play an important role in these circumstances. During clashes earlier this year in Agok, I was tasked with transferring patients to other MSF hospitals as well as facilitating evacuations of MSF staff members.
Despite the contentment that flight coordination gives me, South Sudan is a challenging context, and the aviation standards are low. Bushes surround airstrips in the region, and the air traffic control isn’t at its best.
One thing that keeps my job uniquely interesting is that it’s a male-dominated industry. Being a woman in logistics, and especially in aviation, is not a challenge I face easily, but I try to do so with courage and determination.
Despite the challenges, my job gives me many moments I will never forget. Once, I had to return a little boy to his family after a whole month in the hospital. I remember how elated they were. Seeing the joy on his family’s faces and those of others we serve, is what keeps me going."