Harry Dyer is a 25 year-old, fourth-generation Kenyan who works as a bush pilot flying to defend threatened wildlife in Kenya’s 33-million acre Tsavo National Park. Harry leads a team of pilots for the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, equipped with small aircraft, in conducting anti-poaching operations and aerial surveillance. It is dangerous work. Low-level, slow flight is essential to identify poaching camps, snares, and gather detailed intelligence.
At approximately 9 a.m. on January 12, 2017, Harry Dyer was finishing a routine flight over Tsavo National Park in Kenya. Though these types of flights are extremely dangerous, they are imperative for keeping the animals safe from poachers.
Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted what appeared to be a lion, about five miles from headquarters. At the time, there was a massive rabies outbreak and the lion population was at an all-time low. There was a desperate need to collect a sample from a surviving lion. To confirm the sighting and to notify a ground-team and veterinarian, he turned to make another pass. An untimely gust of wind hit the small aircraft, just as Harry went above the tree line, knocking him into a tree, ripping off the left wing (where the gas tank is located), and sending his plane, nose-first and in flames, into the brush. Harry had to struggle out of his harness and had to break open the door that had been damaged in the crash, costing valuable seconds. Aware that he was on fire, he immediately began rolling on the ground. Once the flames were extinguished, he surveyed his body. Amazingly, he did not appear to have broken any bones and he began assessing the situation.
Though Harry was in pain, staying in place was not an option. In a 33-million acre park, it could take days until he would be found. With no water or supplies and burned over 45% of his body, Harry was extremely vulnerable to the abundant wildlife in the park. He concluded his only option was to run, despite serious threats of exhaustion and dangerous animals over the five miles to headquarters. Full of adrenaline and determination, Harry willed his way through the bush until he came to the Athi-Galana-Sabaki River (Athi River), which is full of crocodiles and hippopotamuses. He searched for a safe place to cross and plunged into the predator-filled water. Yelling for help, Harry was noticed by a local herdsman, who leapt into the water to help Harry make it safely to the other side and onto headquarters.
It was clear to everyone, including Harry, that his burns were much worse than he originally thought. An emergency aerial evacuation was called and the team fought to keep Harry stable, continuously hosing him down with clean water followed by applications of Savlon antiseptic cream. It was now 2 p.m., approximately five hours after the crash, and Harry finally received some morphine to alleviate some of his pain and was en route to the nearest hospital, two hours away.
Understaffed and underequipped, another three hours elapsed before initial testing was complete, delaying the urgent care of Harry’s severe burns over 45% of his body. In the back of his mind was the memory that two of his friends, who were also pilots, died over the previous year from burns of 12-15%.
The hospital in Nairobi is excellent for trauma and non-emergency needs, but lacks the equipment, knowledge, and sterile conditions to properly care for burn victims. It was not an ideal place for someone in Harry’s condition. Exposure to the unfit environment put Harry in serious risk.
Options for specialized burn care are scant throughout Africa. It is universally known throughout Africa that the only specialized referral burn center is Netcare Milpark Hospital (Milpark) in Johannesburg, South Africa – nearly 2500 miles from where Harry was. The morning after the accident, Harry was finally transported to Milpark. His transfer was facilitated by connections and resources not available to the majority of people throughout Africa.
Harry’s close friend and business partner, Trey Fehsenfeld, accompanied Harry and his mother from Nairobi to Johannesburg. Desperate to help in this critical situation, Trey reached out to his mother, Suzie Fehsenfeld, to identify the best burn specialist in the U.S.to help provide insight, recommendations and support. Friend after friend led her to Dr. Rajiv Sood, medical director at the Richard M. Fairbanks Burn Center at Eskenazi Health. Eventually, Dr. Sood was connected to Trey and so began months of daily communication. Dr. Sood provided moral support and shared medical advice with Trey, helping him be the best advocate possible. He advised Trey with questions to ask the doctors and explained what various symptoms meant. Dr. Sood also spoke directly with the physicians in Johnannesburg about Harry’s treatment.
After eight weeks of battling through multiple skin grafts, countless infections, 19 surgeries, and the complete failure of his lungs, Harry was finally stable enough to come to Indianapolis. Dr. Sood and his team began identifying ways to move Harry to Eskenazi Health. Many Facetime conversations gave Harry hope. During one call, Dr. Sood promised Harry that he would have him running again in eight weeks. This set a goal for Harry, an avid marathon runner, as he was determined to fight to achieve it.
On March 16th, Harry Dyer took his first shower in two months and spent the night in the Sidney & Lois Eskenazi Hospital. The next day, Dr. Sood told him he could go home and begin daily outpatient treatments. He has been at Eskenazi Health every afternoon since, undergoing physical and occupational therapy, laser treatments, and more.
Though the road has been tough, Harry was running again six weeks after arriving in Indianapolis. He has plans to run a half marathon in June with his brother and Trey.
Harry Dyer’s incredible battle has lead him on a mission to improve African burn victims’ chances of survival by making the highest quality burn care accessible in his home country of Kenya, through the Harry Dyer Burn Center.