From plane crash in Kenya to Eskenazi burn clinic, Harry Dyer made quite a journey. And it’s not over yet.
His story sounds too epic to be true.
The bush pilot soared the skies, searching for signs of elephant poachers in a wildlife preserve in his native Kenya. On the ground, he helped start a coconut oil business to provide a source of income for farmers in his hometown. In his spare time, he ran marathons, including a grueling five-day, 230-kilometer race in Peru, to raise money to support wildlife rangers in Africa.
Then, a fiery plane crash, survived by running five miles through the savanna and fording a river known for its population of nasty crocodiles, all with burns over 45 percent of his body.
Five months later comes the next plot twist for Harry Dyer: helping Indiana University School of Medicine doctors build a center so that burn victims like himself will not have to travel out of country to receive life-saving treatment.
“I figured this would be a good way to give back to a place that has a massive need,” said Dyer, who turns 25 on June 2.
Thousands of miles away, long before the fateful plane accident, Dr. Rajiv Sood, medical director of the Richard M. Fairbanks Burn Center at Eskenazi Health, had a similar dream. In 2009, the Eskenazi Health Foundation had provided funding for Sood and others to open the 12-bed pediatric Meehan Family Burn Center in San Salvador. Every year since, the burn center has sent its staff there on a mission trip
Sood and others had talked about doing something similar in Eldoret, Kenya, where Indiana University has had a partnership with the Moi University School of Medicine. But it took Dyer’s experience — and his friendship with a philanthropic Indianapolis family — to help fuel that effort.
Go back six years when Trey Fehsenfeld, a 2010 Park Tudor graduate, moved to Kenya to work in elephant conservation. After half a year, Fehsenfeld vacationed at a resort on an island off the Kenyan mainland owned by Dyer’s family. The two young men, who shared a love of travel, adventure and conservation, clicked.
Dyer and a friend were about to sail from Cape Town, South Africa, to the United States, where they planned to earn their pilot’s licenses. Fehsenfeld met them in Miami and accompanied them to Georgia, where all three earned licenses.
That lark turned into another and another: a road trip from Georgia to Alaska, where the two worked in seabird conservation, then stints in Indianapolis and China. By the time they reached Alaska, their friendship had cemented.
“If you can deal with someone in the car for 65 hours, that’s kind of the test,” Fehsenfeld said.
Over time, the friendship blossomed into a business venture, Roots Coconut Oil, based in Dyer’s hometown on an island off the Kenyan mainland.
Fehsenfeld split his time between the company and the Mara Elephant Project, a non-profit that protects elephants from poaching. Dyer did his part for conservation, flying missions for Kenyan wildlife officials to monitor a park of about 33 million acres (the size of New Jersey — or as he put it, the size of Wales) for signs of poaching, such as carcasses.
Often Dyer would respond to reports of poaching, hoping to spy from the sky what might be difficult to track on the ground. Other times, he would fly a patrol for five to six hours.
“You have to be really low and flying really slow to pick up on little things,” he said.
Some days yielded nothing. But over the past two years of doing these missions, Dyer said, he’s managed to help snag quite a few poachers.
On the morning of Jan. 12, Dyer hopped into his Super Cub, a two-seater high-performance plane prized in the bush because of its ability to land on rugged surfaces. By mid-morning on this hot, windy day, he had finished his patrol and headed toward home.
Flying fast and low, Dyer spied what he thought were two lions lying by the side of the road instead of in the shade, where one would expect to find them in the heat.
Dyer started the plane in a steep turn to get a better look. As the plane veered, a gust flipped it. Dyer knew he had to right the plane immediately.
“I don’t fly very well upside down,” he said. “I put everything I had to go onto my wheels instead of onto my roof.”
He landed right side up and slid into the bush. The impact ripped his left wing off and damaged his fuel tanks. He managed to break open the door and escape the burning plane.
The nearest person was miles away. Fortunately, he had crashed near one of the few dirt roads in the park. He made his way there and headed for home, wearing the remnants of the T-shirt and shorts he had been wearing inflight.
An experienced marathoner, Dyer ran in the sun and stopped when he reached the shade, savoring the relative cool. He shouted as he ran to scare off any animals he might encounter. He had nothing to drink and his burns seared.
After about five miles, Dyer reached his next challenge: a river known for its population of large, testy crocodiles. Dyer looked around for the shortest crossing.
“I put it off as long as possible,” Dyer said.
Then he jumped in and swam. Fast.
When he reached the other side, he made it to a house and someone drove him to the local wildlife office. Once there, he downed Coke after Coke as water was poured over his burns. Arrangements were made to have him airlifted to a hospital in Nairobi, about 100 miles away.
But the Nairobi hospital was not known for its skilled burn care. The nearest burn center in Africa was in Johannesburg, about a five-hour flight away. The next day, he flew there with his mother and Fehsenfeld, who had been in Nairobi on business. His father who had only a Kenyan passport had to wait to enter South Africa until he could get a visa.
For the next three weeks, Dyer was so sedated, he did not wake up. He developed infection after infection, some from his river crossing, some from his brief stint in the Kenyan hospital.
Meanwhile, Fehsenfeld’s parents helped him get in touch with Dr. Sood. Fehsenfeld called him almost daily, plumbing his expertise to make sure his friend received the best care possible. He wanted to bring Dyer to the United States. It took two months before he was well enough to handle the trip.
When Dyer arrived in Indianapolis in mid-March, he could barely walk. He stayed one night in the hospital and then took up residence in the Fehsenfelds’ Zionsville home while making daily trips to Eskenazi for physical therapy. He also has received laser scar management for his burns.
Now he’s preparing to return to Kenya. Eventually, he wants to return to flight, though he won’t be able to hop into a cockpit in a T-shirt and shorts anymore. After his accident, his company outfitted all its pilots with flame-retardant flight suits.
At the end of June, he’s planning to do a half-marathon in Kenya with his younger brother, William, and Fehsenfeld.
“I figured if I could ever guilt trip my brother into a marathon, it’s now,” Harry said.
On a recent weekend, the three jetted down to Florida for a fishing tournament. Their team won; Dyer snagged a 130-pound tarpon.
Wednesday they shared their victory with Dyer’s physical therapist Kristen Tinlin. “That’s pretty heavy,” she said when she heard the official weight. “Did you have any pain?”
When Dyer answered no, she retorted with a smile, “Are you lying?” Another “no.”
Tinlin knows how tough Dyer can be. He’s come far in just two months.
“He’s exceeded any of what my goals would have been,” she said. “I expected it to be a lot slower recovery, but he’s an anomaly.”
Now, Dyer and the Fehsenfeld family are hoping to meet another challenge: helping the Eskenazi Health Foundation raise $2 million to build that burn center in Eldoret. It would be the first in the country and likely become a destination for burn victims throughout that region of Africa.
Burns are not uncommon in that part of the world, often for children who tumble too close to open cooking fires, Sood said.
In Africa, people who sustain burns over 20 to 30 percent of their bodies have little hope of receiving care. In the United States, there’s hope for those who have burns over 75 percent of their bodies, said Ernie Vargo, president and chief executive officer of the Eskenazi Health Foundation.
The foundation plans to build a program in which Indiana surgeons travel to Kenya and Kenyan surgeons come here for training. Kenyan surgeons could also consult with Indiana experts by Skype or email just as their counterparts in San Salvador do.
Vargo said he hopes to be able to raise the money in the next six months or so.
Once completed, the center will bear neither the Eskenazi nor IU name.
It will be called the Harry Dyer Burn Center.
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