"I couldn't do this without my wife," Mark Palm tells PEOPLE of running Samaritan Aviation

By Patrick Gomez
Updated November 05, 2015 11:45 AM
Credit: Courtesy Mark Palm

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Mark Palm was just 20 years old when he revealed to his future wife, Kirsten, that he wanted to spend his life providing for the people of Papua New Guinea.

“I said, ‘This is what I wanted to do in my life. If it’s something you can consider agreeing to, we can continue to date. If not, we can just be friends,’ ” Palm tells PEOPLE of one of his first dates with Kirsten. “And she signed on with a smile on her face.”

Born in Illinois and raised primarily in Southern California, Palm, now 41, was the son of a minister and grew up with a love for aviation and a desire to help people.

At age 16, Palm says he had a “life-changing” experience that inspired him to find a way to combine his two passions.

“I got the chance to go to Mexico with my church’s youth group to build houses for people who were less fortunate,” he says. “Being a part of that felt like a godsend. It was confirmation that I needed to use my passion for aviation to serve in a remote area of the world.”

Three years later, while in college, Palm and a friend took a trip to Papua New Guinea in the southwest Pacific Ocean. They spent five weeks visiting remote islands and living with the tribes.

“These people were living without the basics,” Palm says of his 1994 trip. “They brought us this little boy who had a small cut on his leg that was badly infected. It was something so simple that here in the States we would put a little bit of ointment on and it would be over. But this little boy didn t have that. We used a first aid kit and we tired to fix him up the best we could, but we realized this is a place that needed help.”

In 2000, Palm founded Samaritan Aviation, a medial outreach program that now serves the 500,000 residents of Papua New Guinea’s East Sepik Province.

“Eighty percent of these people live in remote areas and would have to travel two to five days to reach the one hospital in the province,” says Palm. “But [in 2010,] we started operating the area’s only seaplane. We deliver medicine and supplies and provide transportation to people in emergency situations.”

Palm estimates that Samaritan Aviation – which is funded by donations as well as the government of Papua New Guinea – has helped save almost 400 lives, many of them mothers and babies.

“One time we got called to pick up a woman who had passed out during a breech birth. We got a local nurse and flew to pick the mom up, but there wasn’t room for her husband to come along with us. He had to take the long way,” says Palm. “It took him a few days to reach the town where the hospital is and when he did he went to the morgue assuming that’s where he’d find both his baby and his wife but they weren’t there.”

“They sent him to the hospital where he found his wife and twin babies,” Palm continues. “I remember him looking at my wife and basically saying, ‘I don’t deserve this. I’m a bad person and I don t deserve you guys coming over here to save my wife.’ That was a picture of grace for us. That is why we do what we do.”

Palm has dedicated his life to Samaritan Aviation but is quick to acknowledge that he does not do it alone. He spent the first part of last year training a second pilot and has hired a medical director. A second seaplane will be in operation beginning in early 2016 with another pilot moving out soon to help with the workload.

“That plane is invaluable,” says Andrew Rankin, a former Sepik program manager with Oxfam in Papua New Guinea, an organization that has helped fund Samaritan Aviation’s work. “Without Mark and his operation, it would be impossible to service the villages in that area. It literally is a life-and-death situation that they are saving people from.”

Palm is grateful for the support of his board, donors, mentors and fellow pilots, but he is perhaps most thankful that his wife and three kids – Sierra, 13, Drake, 11, and Nolan, 10 – have been with him the entire time.

“I couldn’t do this without my wife. She will drive the ambulance from the plane to the hospital and she stays with the patients. She helps feed them and prays with them,” says Palm. “And my kids are right there too. They see the needs and they’ve had the chance to respond to those needs at a young age. I think it’s important that they see that things are bigger than themselves. I think that is shaping who they are as people.”

Palm would love for Samaritan Aviation to expand across the globe, but for now, he’s focused on helping the people of the East Sepik Province.

“The need is so great for right now in Papua New Guinea. If we find other opportunities, we’ll look at those. But the priority is helping here before we worry about anywhere else,” he says. “It’s all about looking outward and saying, ‘What are the needs around us and how can we make a difference?’ “