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PIA rescues accident victims from freezing Skardu highlands

Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) saved numerous injured people from Skardu and its tall mountains last week to help them reach adequate health care facilities in Islamabad. Blocked roads and otherwise rugged terrain made it impossible for the victims to receive paramedic help in due time.

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This winter, Pakistan has had record-breaking temperatures all over the country. Drifters and travelers have found it extremely difficult to maneuver on rugged terrain due to lack of experience coupled with an unpredictable infrastructure of Pakistan’s northern areas.

Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) has been playing savior in retrieving patients from Skardu and dropping them to Islamabad by air. ‘On average, we transfer around 5 to 6 patients on our daily flights along with an occasional stretcher case’, says PIA official, Abdullah Khan. ‘We have to save the precious lives of all the patients we encounter; they have to reach Islamabad for further treatment and, currently, PIA is only available service to cater to all these cases’.

Currently, the weather forecast in Skardu has sub-zero temperatures, ranging from -2 to -10 Celsius, and is expected to continue as such for weeks to come. Located at 2,200 meters (7,200 ft) above sea level, it is the starting point for climbing K2 and other peaks above 8,000 meters (26,200 ft). This makes Skardu a destination spot for hiking enthusiasts. One can imagine the euphoria of standing among the clouds with a panoramic view of multiple snowcapped mountainous peaks.

But is the thrill worth risking your life in a remote and steep highland? As of today, Skardu does not harbor an adequately-equipped medical facility to tend to accidental injuries in the area. Hence, in case of disasters, patients have to be quickly transported to the nearest primary care unit, that is, in Islamabad.

PIA also operated a special flight by ATR, on 10th January 2020, to collect an accident victim with a spinal cord injury, who had to be transported to ISB for urgent treatment

Accounting for today’s traffic and road conditions, commuting from Skardu to Islamabad can take around 14 hours by car, however, landslides and snow along the way can stretch this up to 30 hours. Such a lengthy transportation can be highly detrimental to any patient’s prognosis, specially one including blood loss and frost bites – which are common findings in hiking injuries.

Reports from Pakistan Meteorological Department showed that the temperature in Skardu – the coldest city of Pakistan – dropped to -22 Celsius this winter, breaking a 100-year record! These conditions are not ones that the inhabitants of Skardu could have prepared for. Snow fell to depths of 1.5 feet and for two days, consecutively, last week. Such a harsh climate made it impossible for airplanes to fly, hence, flights were not in operation from 11th January to 17th January.

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However, PIA in coordination with Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) prepared endlessly to deal with the harsh climate and successfully resumed their flight PK451/452 on 18th and 19th January. ‘Our staff worked overtime and attended office till late hours to make all the required equipment operational (as we need to start the equipment intermittently to keep them warm for next day’s flight). A good numbers of patients, students, armed forces etc. were picked up on our flights for Islamabad in these two days. In fact, remains of two deceased individuals from Kuwait were also transported from ISB to KDU on our flight PK452/ on 19th January’, according to Abdullah Khan.

He further added, ‘PIA also operated a special flight by ATR, on 10th January 2020, to collect an accident victim with a spinal cord injury, who had to be transported to ISB for urgent treatment. This was because no facility, providing MRI scans, exist in Skardu, which is a prerequisite for treatment in that case’.

These highly unfortunate incidents need to be tended to by some responsible authority. Several facets of unavailable facilities are highlighted here. Firstly, the lack of a well-equipped primary health care unit with trained paramedics to take care of injured individuals; secondly; shortage of air ambulances to cater to accidents in areas of high altitude; and thirdly, an up-to-date hospital with experienced doctors and nurses for Skardu’s local and visiting population.

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In these difficult times, PIA is trying its best to cover up as much damage as possible to help reach the logistically inaccessible areas of Pakistan and save as many lives as possible. However, this cannot be a permanent solution to the situation at hand. There is a dire need for basic health care facilities to improve the living standards and uplift the tourism industry in the northern lands of our country.

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