His body ravaged by peritonitis caused by a burst appendix, Calgary geologist George Strother-Stewart hovered between life and death as delirium transported him to scenes from his boyhood.
But Strother-Stewart knew he would see his wife and one-year-old twin sons again when – recumbent on his stretcher – he turned his head and gazed through the window of the Falcon medical jet at the sunrise over the Gulf of Finland.
“Thank God I’m here now, finally,” he thought, knowing that the sunrise signified approach to Helsinki, where medical help awaited him courtesy of International SOS, a provider of evacuation services for globetrotting employees – many of whom work in the international oilpatch.
International SOS, based in London and Singapore, was only a phone call away when Strother-Stewart’s appendix ruptured in July 2001 at his then-employer’s oil production site in Kyzylorda, a city in Kazakhstan.
Earlier, Strother-Stewart, then 50, shrugged off the early signs of appendicitis as he flew to Frankfurt, the first leg of his journey to the huge, remote Central Asian nation following a furlough with his family in Calgary.
When his colleagues sounded the alarm at Kyzylorda, International SOS put its global network of medical and evacuation services into action.
Strother-Stewart was bathed in sweat as an engineer accompanied him to an SOS clinic in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Endless hours and aircraft transfers later, he was brought back from the brink of death at a university teaching hospital in Helsinki.
Strother-Stewart’s adventure is typical of the thousands that occur each year – tales that end with International SOS plucking employees out of political or social trouble spots or delivering life-saving medical care.
International SOS, founded in 1974 in the United States and acquired in 1998 by Singapore-based AEA International, has nine regional centres, 28 alarm centres, 3,700 employees and 60 million “members” around the world.
More than a quarter of SOS’s employees are doctors, nurses, medics, pharmacists and aero-medical specialists, equipped with jet air ambulances and portable medical equipment that converts an aircraft to an intensive care or neo-natal unit.
The 6,100 client corporations that employ the 60 million travellers are provided a package of services ranging from medical evacuation, such as in Strother-Stewart’s case, to evacuations from regions stricken by insurrection and terrorism.
SOS refers to this large facet of its operation as “security,” as opposed to “medical.”
Ed Bordun of Vernon, B.C., International SOS’s director of business development for Western Canada, says SOS serves several hundred clients in Alberta and B.C. ranging from small firms to global giants employing tens of thousands of travellers.
“Eighty per cent of our clients in Western Canada are related somehow to oil and gas,” Bordun said in an interview. “Oil and gas companies dominate our numbers – whether they be drilling companies or the oil companies themselves.”
The mining and engineering sectors also play prominently among SOS’s Western Canadian clientele.
Employees travel with a guardian angel in the form of a wallet-sized SOS card.
Most of the company’s Western Canadian clients are in Alberta, though more than 100 are based in B.C. Some deal directly with Bordun; some indirectly because their head offices are in other countries. A few have SOS coverage through their own insurance.
“It’s very affordable for smaller companies with as few as five travellers,” Bordun said.
SOS spokeswoman Andrea Bestul of the North American centre in Philadelphia said fees vary, depending on the geographic dispersion of employees, what services are to be included and whether the contract is a service contract or fee-for-service.
Bestul said a client can provide SOS membership to five of its frequent travellers for as little as $3,000 Cdn a year.
“International SOS has the unique capability to bring together a host of integrated services for our clients through emergency assistance, medical services and management of the delivery of health care,” she said.
SOS sells service, not insurance. It provides its health, security and travel services on its own and covers itself against the risk of catastrophic events, mostly through insurance syndicate Lloyd’s of London.
“The majority of my clients in Western Canada have a service contract,” says Bordun. “They have chosen not to go fee-for-service.”
In 2002, International SOS handled some 200,000 medical cases around the world – cases ranging from physician referrals to emergency evacuations – plus 200,000 travel and security cases.
Some notable world events responded to have included the Sept. 9 bombing of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, the 2003 Jakarta Marriott and the 2002 bombings on Bali.
SOS was in the thick of the security and contingency planning at this year’s Summer Olympics in Athens.
And in May 1998, when 3,000 Canadians and Americans – some from Western Canada – scrambled to get out of Indonesia amid widespread civil strife, SOS was on the scene finding safe havens until its members were evacuated.
SOS was proactive in last year’s SARS crisis and this year’s avian flu crisis, communicating with the World Health Organization, U.S. Centres for Disease Control and other health authorities, and giving its clients 24-hour access to health information.
It also provides travellers a variety of information and referral services, including online services through which the individual or his or her employer can obtain travel advisories and the employer can pinpoint the location of any staff.
It issues medical reports and security reports from around the world.
“We’re not just an evacuation company,” Bordun said. “After 9/11, corporations looked for a quick take on where their employees were around the world. Travel agents could not provide quick, accurate information.
“The traveller has SOS as a safety net.”
(Brock Ketcham can be reached at email@example.com)