Dream Big, Start Small
Young Roatan Entrepreneur Launches Air Ambulance Service

December 27th, 2014
by Robert Armstrong

If you or a loved one have a medical emergency in the near future requiring immediate attention on the mainland or in the US, your fate may depend on a boyish-looking 23-year-old with little formal schooling who not too long ago was selling vegetables on a street corner in West End. You will be in good hands.

Edil Mendez, 23, already has more than a decade of experience as a paramedic.

Edil Mendez, 23, already has more than a decade of experience as a paramedic.

Edil Mendez, who says he has been involved in about 80 emergency medical evacuations from Roatan in his young career, recently established his own company – Paramedics 504 – to offer on-call 24/7 air ambulance services to island residents. He said he has done 15 evacuations already – three of them cruise ship passengers – since registering the company in late September. He does not yet have an office.

A year from now, Mendez, a trained paramedic, hopes to have his own ground ambulance and helicopter, a 24-hour call center, a med-evac insurance plan for island residents and possibly trained paramedics to facilitate medical evacuations from Utila and Guanaja. “That’s the plan,” he said. “We’re trying to do this the best way we can and offer the best quality to the people, because we really need it here on the island.”

Even without all that in place yet, Mendez claims he can arrange emergency airlifts on extremely short notice. “If we got a call at midnight we could have the plane in 45 minutes,” he said.

In just this past Christmas week, Mendez’s new company arranged or participated in three emergency medical airlifts within a 72-hour period. He accompanied a US citizen and military veteran who was flown to San Pedro Sula December 23 on a US military helicopter after suffering a severe stroke. “When I came back in the afternoon they were calling me for another flight, to do another flight from here to San Pedro Sula around 11 O’Clock in the night,” he said. Then on Christmas Day he received a call at 2 p.m. from the family of a 76-year-old islander who needed to see a neurosurgeon for an emergency CAT scan. “We flew her around 3:30 from here to San Pedro,” said Mendez.

Mendez was born in Olanchito, Yoro, on the Honduran mainland, and moved to Roatan with his family when he was four. By the time he was 11 he was selling vegetables with his brother from a cart across from the Coconut Tree in West End. Then at 12 he started hanging around the fire station, which was then located in Coxen Hole.

“That fire station was my home,” he said. “I was there 365 days a year.”

Mendez learned to fight fires. But he became more interested in the medical area.

“I was always in the ambulance, taking care of patients,” he said. So he was picked to participate in two paramedic training courses offered on the island by a visiting team from Union College in Nebraska. He also got training from the medical clinic at Anthony’s Key. Gaynor Pook, who operates the dive shop at Coconut Tree and remembered Mendez from his vegetable-selling days, helped him get his open water SCUBA certification, after which he got advanced and rescue training with other fire fighters at CoCco View Resort. All tolled, Mendez says he has received 27 certifications in the medical and emergency field from various organizations.

In 2011, at age 19, he left the fire department and went to work as an on-site paramedic at Mahogany Bay, the recently opened cruise ship port. He then moved to a similar job for billionaire Kelcy Warren on Barbaret Island, off Roatan’s east end. He also worked with Ron Shortis, an Australian who offered air ambulance services from Roatan until a couple years ago. Based on that experience, people began calling on him in emergencies. He provided paramedic services for med-evacs at the request of local resorts, Anacaribe (the agent for cruise ships visiting the island), the Canadian Warden and others, sometimes free of charge.

“I was just hired like a private paramedic for people who needed medical attention,” he said.

In early 2012 he was recognized as a “Roatan Island Hero” for helping med-evac the victims of a plane that crashed in the water off  West Bay. It was in that operation that he met the operators of Horizontes, a small San Pedro Sula-based air charter company that is now his partner in his latest venture.

In 2013 Mendez left the island and spent some time in New York. He returned in February and began looking for what to do next.

“I had a bad relation with my girlfriend … a bad romance experience,” he said. “I was disappointed, my heart was broken.”

Then during Semana Santa, Mendez received a call about 2 a.m. from Bananarama Resort concerning one of its employees, who had been in a serious traffic accident. Mendez arranged to fly him to a hospital on the coast, where he unfortunately expired from severe head trauma (the only fatality for one of his evacuated patients, he claims). He then began looking into doing air ambulance services as a full-time business.

Mendez called on his network of contacts, including Horizontes, which has two Cessna aircraft and a full-time coordinator/dispatcher in San Pedro Sula. Another friend, Hector Nuncio, operates helicopters from Tegucigalpa, La Ceiba and San Pedro Sula through a charter company called Divesa. He established relationships with D’Antoni Hospital in La Ceiba, Bendaña and Cemesa hospitals in San Pedro Sula and Hospital Escuela in Tegucigalpa to facilitate reception of air-evaced patients, including in some cases dropping them in front of the emergency room door by helicopter.

Paramedics 504 charges a flat $600 fee for paramedic services, plus air transport fees, which range from $400 an hour for the Cessna 172 to $1,200 an hour for a helicopter. The fee includes all medications and supplies, as well as ground transport. Payment is accepted by cash or credit card.

So far, the company has provided air ambulance services only from Roatan to hospitals on the Honduran mainland. But he has authorizations to operate into and out of Cancun, Mexico, and Costa Rica as well, and he he said he recently established a relationship with Trinity Air Ambulance out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, whereby he could coordinate  med-evacs to the US, although he has not yet done so.  “The arrangement is ready,” he said.

But Mendez is only getting started. He plans to open an office near the Triangle in Coxen Hole in February with a full-time staff operating a 24/7 call center. But that’s not all.

“We want to have a plane here in Roatan,” he said. “That will save a lot of flight time.” Specifically, he is looking to buy a Bell Textron helicopter. He also plans to get his pilot’s license, although he concedes he cannot both fly the plane and be the in-flight paramedic. For that reason, he’s looking to train more paramedics, including possibly on the other Bay Islands.

Mendez also plans to offer his own insurance plan.

“We’re going to be offering an insurance, like a membership, where the people can make monthly payments,” he said. Those payments will cover the costs of maintaining an aircraft and staff on stand-by, he hopes. Details are still being worked out, but he said coverage for an individual would be around $60 a month. There will also be family plans, and companies and resorts could purchase coverage for their employees and guests (rates still under analysis). Coverage would be available for services only within Honduras.

“We’re going to have everything set up here,” Mendez said.

Mendez said he was also working with his network of contacts to arrange donations of equipment to the Roatan fire station, where it all began for him.

“I come from that fire station,” he said. “That was my home. So I want to have everything working well for everybody. You never know when you’re going to have an emergency.”

Mendez recognizes his plans are ambitious. But he is not deterred.

“When I was starting this, I was told, somebody told me, you’re never going to get off the floor. They were saying, ‘You’re asking for something that is too big.’ And I tell them, ‘Well, with the help of God and my friends that are supporting me, I’m going to keep on doing it.’

“I like this job; I like to do this. I just want to make something, you know, happen on the island, because I raised up here. … I know how things used to be here. I’m going to keep going with this and see how things are going to come out.”

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