RSAF airlifts cancer-stricken woman from cruise in darkness

GRATEFUL: Madam Lesley Jenkins meeting (from left) Capt (Dr) Matthew Yeo, Capt Irving Chieng and First Warrant Officer Goh Wai Lam.
PHOTO: RSAF airlifts cancer-stricken woman from cruise in darkness

SINGAPORE - She was out at sea when the cancer she has been battling for six years took a turn for the worse.

Doctors on board the cruise ship treated her, but to no avail.

Madam Lesley Jenkins, 71, needed to get to a hospital fast and she did, thanks to the swift response by the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF).

The Australian, who was on board a cruise ship that was 150 nautical miles (278km) from Singapore, had to be carefully winched from the vessel and flown in a Super Puma helicopter to the Singapore General Hospital (SGH).

The ship was on a 20-day cruise from Sydney to Singapore. It was heading to Bangkok at the time of the incident.

The dramatic rescue operation early last month, which was shared on the RSAF's Facebook page on Monday, got more than 600 likes and many comments praising their work.

Madam Jenkins had been cleared by her doctors to go on on a cruise on the MV Diamond Princess with her husband.

But during her trip, she started to suffer from complications related to her cancer.

After four days of treatment, the medical staff on board felt that due to her condition, Madam Jenkins would not have been able to hold on until the ship reached the next port of call, said Medical Officer Captain (Doctor) Matthew Yeo, who was part of the six-man rescue crew.

The ship was quite far from land, so the best option for her was evacuation, the 27-year-old national serviceman added.

As it was within Singapore's search and rescue region, the ship contacted the Singapore Rescue Co-ordination Centre, which in turn activated the crew at Sembawang Air Base at 2.17am on March 6.

The duty crew immediately grabbed their gear while the ground staff assisted with preparations. Within 10 minutes, they were airborne in their Super Puma helicopter.

When Captain Irving Chieng, 33, heard the announcement "Scramble for Rescue 10", his first thought was how to get to the mission area as quickly and safely as possible.

The pilot and commander of the rescue mission said such missions have a lot of uncertainties, from weather conditions to the patient's condition.

"It could be raining cats and dogs over at the area of operations while we are sitting in a nice, cool environment (back at base)," he said.

The mission was made more challenging by the darkness of night, said Capt Chieng.

When the crew took off, it was almost pitch black, which made flying over open waters difficult as there was no distinct horizon to act as a guide.

The poor lighting also made locating and identifying the ship challenging.

The winds were unpredictable and sudden gusts meant that he had to be alert.

Fortunately, the area where the rescue took place had clear skies.

CONTACT

The crew managed to establish contact with the cruise ship 20 nautical miles from its location and reached the vessel at about 3.30am, after flying for about 75 mins.

The mission did not get easier for the rescuers as the 290m-long cruise ship did not have a helipad.

Instead, Capt Chieng had to hover the Super Puma at about 24m in the air while Capt (Dr) Yeo was lowered to the ship together with winchman Third Sergeant Boo Pei Xun to assess and evacuate Madam Jenkins.

This was done using a winch, a mechanical device used to pull in or let out cable.

The winching operation was conducted while the cruise ship was still moving as it helped Capt Chieng maintain his hover position over the deck of the ship. He said: "This was the toughest part of the mission."

Capt (Dr) Yeo found that Madam Jenkins was conscious, but quite weak and needed to be taken to a hospital.

Due to her age and condition, the crew decided to secure her to a stretcher and winch her up together with 3rd Sgt Boo.

Capt (Dr) Yeo followed suit.

"She was very brave," said Capt (Dr) Yeo.

"She told me afterwards that she was quite nervous during the winching process. But she felt reassured by our presence."

Once on board, Capt (Dr) Yeo and medic Lance Corporal Gladwin Ho kept Madam Jenkins stable, and monitored her condition closely throughout the flight to SGH.

She was discharged on March 15.

Recounting the ordeal, Madam Jenkins praised the crew's professionalism and was grateful for their assistance.

"Even their lovely, friendly smiles, when I was feeling so rotten, helped," she said.

Capt Chieng was heartened to have played his part in the rescue operation.

He said: "It is gratifying to see that my years of training paid off and I was able to make a difference in someone's life."

RESCUING MADAM JENKINS

Madam Lesley Jenkins is cleared by doctors for a cruise aboard the Diamond Princess with her husband. During the cruise, she falls ill from cancer-related complications. Doctors aboard the ship treat her for four days but decide she will not make the next port-of-call without more medical assistance.

The cruise ship is in international waters but within Singapore's search and rescue region. The ship contacts Singapore Rescue Co-ordination Centre. The duty crew at Sembawang Air Base is activated at 2.17am on March 6. In 10 minutes, a six-man crew is airborne in a helicopter.

The rescue crew establishes contact with the ship about 20 nautical miles away. Since the ship has no helipad, the pilot has to hover the Super Puma about 24m above the deck.

A medical officer is winched down to the ship to assess Madam Jenkins' condition. He decides she needs to be hospitalised. She is secured to a stretcher and winched up to the helicopter. She is taken to the Singapore General Hospital.

yufengk@sph.com.sg

This article was published on April 26 in The New Paper.

Get The New Paper for more stories.

VIDEOS TO WATCH

SERVICES