By Carey Averbook
A teenage boy was working on the roof of a house in rural Bhutan last October when a gust of wind blew him to the ground. Upon seeing his distress, the village health assistant called for an emergency helicopter to transport him to a hospital where Dr. Charlie Mize worked. The teenager had broken his arm and ribcage and collapsed part of his lung. He went into cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital and despite 45 minutes of effort at the hospital, there wasn’t anything Mize could do to bring the teenager back.
Mize is a Falls Church native who trained to be a physician specializing in emergency medicine and resuscitation. Growing up with his mother and grandparents, he was inspired by the idea of service modeled by his uncles and grandfather, who was a major general in the Marine Corps.
“I’ve been trying to live up to his example my entire life,” Mize said. “He was the finest gentleman I ever knew.” It was a boyhood promise to his grandfather to make the world a better place that drove Mize’s medical ambitions halfway across the world.
After the teen’s death, Mize and two trauma nurses resolved to save people who are injured in hard to reach places of Bhutan. While there is a network of primary care facilities throughout the country, even in small villages, the population is spread out, and access is challenging due to poor roads and high mountains. Consequently, it was common for patients to die during the long journey to the capital, Thimphu’s, hospital. That’s why the country’s mortality rate due to unintentional injury is 45 per every 100,000 people – the third highest in Asia.
Familiar with the London Air Ambulance, a helicopter trauma team in London that provides immediate life saving and critical care, Mize thought, “Let’s create that, but instead of for a city, why don’t we create that for an entire country?”
In May 2017, the Secretary of Health took a chance on Mize’s idea and the Bhutan Emergency Aeromedical Retrieval (BEAR) team was born. BEAR provides critical emergency care with helicopter mobility throughout the country in high altitude and hard to reach places. The BEAR team includes four physicians and nurses who have been trained in emergency resuscitation and seven pilots and co-pilots. Two teams of two flight officers and two medical officers are on-call everyday while up to 90 people support the team by maintaining equipment and supplies.
The day after BEAR launched, a 43 year-old woman was walking in her fields when she was gored by a wild water buffalo in a small village nine hours from the nearest road access point. The country’s 911 dispatch system was dialed and BEAR arrived just as she went into cardiac arrest from the chest trauma. Because BEAR was there, trained personnel were able to open her up immediately and get her heart beating again. They took her to the hospital and, one week later, she walked out healthy with her family. BEAR saved ten lives in the first month alone.
A big reason for BEAR’s success is its government’s support. The country of Bhutan is committed to improving its citizens’ quality of life, including the provision of high quality and affordable healthcare.
In article nine of the constitution, item 21 states: “The State shall provide free access to basic public health services in both modern and traditional medicines.”
If you are a citizen of Bhutan, you don’t pay anything for the care that BEAR provides.
BEAR has saved 53 lives to date and the majority are under 50 years old. While BEAR largely sustains itself already, Mize intends to phase out of day-to-day operations and have BEAR become entirely self-sustaining.
He hopes to be involved in the future only to review protocols, visit once a year to teach and train, and provide support as needed.
He attributes this vision in part to “the seminal thing” that his grandpa taught him, which was not only the responsibility to do good unto others and make the world a better place, but that everyone can be empowered to do so no matter the size of their community.
Mize, his Bhutanese medical colleagues, and the Secretary of Health along with the entire Bhutanese government have together changed the landscape of emergency medical care and resuscitation throughout the nation, which means that they have changed lives by simply keeping people alive, and living as their healthiest selves.
“It’s been a tremendous honor to have been able to do what I’ve done so far,” Mize stated.
“But there’s so much need and I have so much energy and I’m hoping that I can get a lot more done.”