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Samaritan Aviation’s Mark Palm counts blessings after bout with cancer

After battling B-cell lymphoma during 2019 and 2020, Palm said it’s a blessing that he’s healthy and able to continue an “amazing journey of saving lives, offering access and hope” to 500,000 people who live along the 700-mile-long Sepik River Basin in Papua New Guinea.

“You know, it was a long journey,” Palm said during a visit to the EAA AirVenture Seaplane Base in July. “It was six months of chemotherapy, and five weeks of radiation. When you have B-cell lymphoma, they destroy all of your B cells—both your good and your bad. I finished my last round of chemo five days before they shut down America for COVID.”

Palm’s mission began in the 1990s when he followed a buddy across the globe from the United States to Papua New Guinea’s expansive Sepik River Basin to experience life on the world’s second largest island. He ate and spearfished with the islanders, slept among them, and was smitten by the experience. He vowed to return one day to help make their lives better. 

His vision included establishing a medical ministry outreach among the islanders, so he pursued aviation maintenance, became an FAA certificated A&P mechanic and a commercial pilot, and learned to fly seaplanes.

Palm established the nonprofit Samaritan Aviation in 2000, and 10 years ago he moved his wife, Kirsten, and their three young children from California to the island nation in the southwestern Pacific Ocean to provide medical assistance for those in need of basic health care. Their children, who were 7, 5, and 4, have since blossomed into teenagers. Serving on the island “was an amazing family journey,” Palm said.

Samaritan Aviation founder Mark Palm and his wife, Kirsten, moved from California to Papua, New Guinea, with their children Sierra, Drake, and Nolan. Photo courtesy of Samaritan Aviation.Returning to California in 2019 so Sierra could attend her senior year of high school turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Palm said he was “flying a plane around, telling the Samaritan Aviation story, and trying to raise awareness and recruiting staff,” when he felt “some pressure around my neck area. I went to the hospital, got a CT scan, and they found that I had a B-cell lymphoma,” a cancer of the white blood cells that affects more than 18,000 people in the United States each year.

The disease hit him hard, and he spent months in and out of U.S. hospitals battling cancer while the outreach in Papua New Guinea continued.

The treatment meant Palm’s body was completely unprotected from fighting off the coronavirus as the pandemic swept across the world, so he sequestered himself at home while he gained strength and built back his immunity. He said there were a lot of nervous days in the beginning, “but I’m thankful God allowed me to live another day, and here I am. And I’m so excited about where we’re at as a family, just excited to be alive, and to see another sunrise.”

The mission’s island personnel, which began with his family of five, has since expanded to five additional families and two staff members, plus four U.S.-based personnel. Another family is raising funds to make the move from Michigan.

“We were there by ourselves for the first five years,” Palm recalled. “My wife drove the ambulance and she was the weather lady because there are no weather services in Papua New Guinea. It was a team effort. Our family works hand in hand taking patients to the hospital, visiting patients, feeding them, clothing them, and just loving on people with the goal of being the hands and feet of Jesus to those people in the remote communities.”

Samaritan Aviation uses Cessna 206 seaplanes to deliver medical supplies in Papua New Guinea. Photo courtesy of Samaritan Aviation.The outreach currently uses two specially equipped amphibious Cessna 206 Stationair single-engine aircraft modified with double doors in the cockpit that augment a large cargo entry for stretchers. Samaritan Aviation has already worn out one similarly equipped aircraft and replaced it.

While it’s hard to directly measure the nonprofit’s impact, Palm said Samaritan Aviation pilots have delivered 200,000 pounds of medicine during the past 11 years and flown more than 6,500 patients using the six-seat seaplanes. “There’s still tribal fighting, so machete wounds, spear wounds, and knife wounds” are common.

Life-and-death cases include breech births, snake bites, and tribal fights. General sicknesses like cerebral malaria, tuberculosis, and other equatorial rain forest diseases are common. Palm said polio even came back a couple of years ago. Samaritan Aviation partnered with the World Health Organization to become “the tip of the spear” to deliver thousands of polio vaccines and help stop the spread of the disease. Delivering COVID-19 vaccines became a crucial role that Palm’s team took on in 2021.

He explained that flying a villager also often means transporting that person’s family. “We bring patients in, and we feed them, but in this culture, you don’t just fly a patient in. You have to fly their caretakers in from the village, too, because the hospital there doesn’t feed them, they don’t wash them. It all has to be done by villagers.”

Palm said he’s more passionate today about saving lives through aviation than he’s ever been, and he plans to expand the medical ministry’s reach across the nearly 15,000-foot-high central mountains on the south side of the island.

“It’s about serving those that don’t have access [to health care] and sharing God’s love with them,” said Palm. “That’s really what gets me up every morning. It’s knowing we’ve gone and saved another life. When you’ve brought in a mom, and then you go in and visit her the next day and you see the baby and the mom there—and the smiles on their faces—you can’t put a price tag on that. And it never gets old. You could do that all day long for the rest of your life.”

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