The parents of the baby boy who was born in a helicopter last week said they were prepared for him to be born preterm but had never imagined that their third son would be born in mid air.

Sangay Rigzin who owns a parlour in Panbang, Zhemgang had many customers on October 21. The people were preparing for Panbang Tshechu. Her husband, Kinlay Dorji, said that later that night, his wife complained of cramps. “I started to get worried.”

The couple was expecting their third child.  Kinlay Dorji, a freelance eco-guide,  said their first two sons were born preterm. “In all the three pregnancies, my wife got jaundice six months after she conceived.”

He wanted their third child to be born at nine months and so he did most of the household chores.

The next morning, the health staff at the BHU in Panbang examined her and confirmed Sangay Rigzin, 34, was in labour.

Kinlay Dorji looked at the incubator in the BHU after the health staff informed him that his wife would deliver the baby at 5pm.  “I become anxious. I did not want what happened in 2014 to happen again.”

The couple had their first child born at seven months at Panbang BHU in 2014. There was no incubator then and after the first night, the mother and son were referred to Gelephu Regional Referral Hospital.

They travelled via Assam and the experience was bitter for Kinlay Dorji and his wife. “The facility inside the ambulance was bad. Before the journey started, I sensed that it would be a difficult journey.”

Halfway to Gelephu, they had to return. “My son stopped breathing before reaching the destination.”

Fearing the first incident, Kinlay Dorji said he took his wife to Gelephu much before her due date when they were expecting their second child. Their second son was born at seven months at the Gelephu RRH in December 2015.

“He weighed little more than one and a half kilogram and was kept in an incubator, fed breast milk through tubes for a month,” he said.

Considering Sangay Rigzin’s medical history, Kinlay Dorji said that the health staff at the BHU last week said it was risky to have her deliver the baby at the BHU.

On October 22, after consulting the doctors and the management at the JDWNRH in Thimphu, it was decided to airlift her to a referral hospital.

“I was relieved,” Kinlay Dorji said. “I thought she would be referred to Gelephu but she was referred to Thimphu. I couldn’t be happier.”

Sangay Rigzin, the shy and soft-spoken mother, said that although in pain, she was worried about her baby. “But when they said that I would be referred to Thimphu hospital, I was confident that everything would be fine.”

The helicopter landed in Panbang around 3:55pm. Two-member Bhutan Emergency Aeromedical Retrieval (BEAR) team took the patient’s responsibility as they transshipped her to the helicopter from the ambulance.

The BEAR team involved in the delivery of the baby said they were prepared. “We had neonatal resuscitation and delivery set ready, just in case if we have to deliver the baby on board.”

“When we reached Panbang, things had progressed. The cervix was fully dilated and the mother was ready to push the baby out in the ambulance,” the team said.

By then it was already 4pm and the limited time was a challenge. “If we delayed then it would be difficult for the helicopter to fly in the dark.”

The team decided to board the patient and the flight started from Panbang at 4:04pm.

Kinlay Dorji said it was a 45 minutes journey from Panbnag to Thimphu. “I prayed for my wife and baby’s wellbeing and boarded the helicopter.” Until then, he had only heard about the BEAR team and was impressed by the team’s competency and expertise.

He sat behind the pilot. “We were all given headphones and the pilot told me that we would communicate through it as he gave us safety instructions.”

Five minutes after the flight took off he heard his wife cry. The doctor and the nurse got to work and Kinlay Dorji sensed that she would deliver the baby in the helicopter.

Kinlay Dorji said the team told him that she would reach the hospital to deliver the baby.

But Namdu Dorji decided he wasn’t going to wait to finish the journey to the hospital. About 30 minutes into the flight and 15 minutes before the aircraft was due to touch down, the baby was born at an altitude of 12,000 ft.

“As they wrapped the baby and placed on the mother’s chest, I hurriedly looked through the window to see where my child was born. We were flying above Trongsa,” he said. “The pilot gave me a high-five and thumbs-up to my wife after he was born. That meant everything.”

They landed at the Lungtenphu helipad in Thimphu around 5pm. The BEAR team handed-over the patient and the baby to the emergency staff at the JDWNRH. The baby born at 34 weeks and four days weighed 2.49kgs.

The mother and the baby were discharged from the hospital the next day.

The parents thanked everyone involved in the delivery of Namdu Dorji. “For me, the BEAR team is god. I cannot thank them enough,” Kinlay Dorji said.

“As soon as we reached the hospital, my father, who worked as a District Health Officer called and said the baby should be named Namdu Dorji,” he said.

Kinlay Dorji said his son’s birth in a helicopter is a miracle. “If there was no helicopter service, my son would not have survived. We will definitely name him Namdu Dorji. The service deserves the credit.”

He said they would add another name from a rinpoche to Namdu Dorji.

Kinlay Dorji said there was a difference of earth and sky in healthcare services between 2014 and today. Even in the BHU in Panbang, we now have incubators for pre-term babies and ultrasound facilities.

He said people living in urban areas may not have realised it but for those living in rural areas, the helicopter service is a boon. “And having experienced the service myself, I can just say that it is a miraculous service.”

“The government spent a huge sum of money to provide the helicopter service to my family and we would be eternally grateful to the Royal Bhutan Helicopter Service Limited and the BEAR team at JDWNRH,” Kinlay Dorji said. “I pray that my son would grow up and serve the government, the country and its people like they did to save him and his mother today.”

“We flew here without having to spend a penny and avail free health services. This is possible only because we are born in Bhutan. I feel blessed,” he said.

The BEAR team members said it was a happy event to be part of. “We were relieved everything went well.”

Dechen Tshomo