“We have a pulse!”

02:00am on a chilly, mid-October Saturday morning. Seven hours into our twelve-hour shift. As a student paramedic, myself and the crew are attending an elderly lady who had slipped to the floor and couldn’t get up. She had suffered no injuries and observations confirmed she was medically fit; she simply ‘took a tumble’ and needed assistance to her feet. Whilst my colleague completed the paper work, I engaged in small talk with the lady, pointing to pictures hung proudly on the wall. For each portrait she explained their significance: 50 years of a loving marriage, the success of her children and grandchildren, then stories of her husband – ‘taken from this earth too soon.’

This was a routine job - albeit one that the media won’t commonly report on, and which you won’t see dramatized on BBC’s Casualty. But on this occasion, I couldn’t help but reflect upon all the individuals I had met whilst volunteering with Refugee Rescue this past summer. I couldn’t shake from my mind the thought of how those people had once had a safe home. I was struck by the ease in which we’re able to receive non-judgmental help and kindness by calling 999, while those I met this summer are vulnerable and repeatedly denied even the basic human rights simply because of their passport. 

Refugee Rescue are a grassroots non-government organisation, operating a Search and Rescue boat named ‘Mo Chara’, on the north shore of Lesvos, Greece.  As a volunteer on the boat, myself and three other crew were on call twenty–four hours a day, ready to respond and assist those in distress at sea. I participated in a rock rescue; a tactical operation in which the boat had to navigate amongst jagged rocks to aid stranded individuals to safety. I also worked alongside Hellenic Coastguard and Frontex to safely guide vulnerable refugee dinghies to shore. However, there is one operation that stood out to me and made me appreciate the skills I have learnt as a student paramedic.

One morning, we received reports that a dinghy had been spotted. We raced over to its location to witness the dinghy land and then approximately 50 people spill off the boat onto the stony beach. I was called from the boat to assist a six-month pregnant woman who required medical attention. Diving out of the boat I swam to shore armed with nothing more than foil blankets, a few bottles of water and a very simplistic first aid kit. I was vaguely directed towards the woman, who lay on the ground surrounded by her seven very young children, all scared and worried for their mother’s health. I began to assess:

D – No danger

R - Using AVPU, the lady graded U

C – No catastrophic bleeding

A – Patent

B – Very shallow, bradypnea

C – No pulse

My adrenaline levels rose, I pressed my fingers against her radial artery: no pulse. I rapidly repositioned my fingers against her carotid artery: still no pulse. How could I help this woman with no means to obtain basic observations, let alone any drugs or a more sophisticated diagnostic tool? There was no English speaker within the group, so I couldn’t obtain any medical history, nor could I reassure her frantic husband who spoke worriedly to me in Farsi. At this moment the landing team from Lighthouse Relief arrived - amongst them my friend, a third-year medical student. “I can’t find a pulse” I uttered. Neither could she. What should we do? What could we do? “Raise her legs!” burst out of my mouth and we scrambled together wet bin bags filled with the families few belongings to create a platform to elevate her legs. 

A minute passed. 

“We have a pulse!” Slowly the woman regained consciousness. We worked together to assess the lady dividing the role so that my friend would assess the baby and myself the mother. Help had been called and during our wait for its arrival we stabilised the lady before delivering a structured handover to an IsraAid nurse. “Mother and baby are okay.”

I don’t think anything can truly prepare you for the work out in Lesbos. Regardless of how many times you see an overcrowded dinghy battling the Aegean Sea, there’s always a split moment where you choke seeing people risk their lives fleeing from unimaginable environments. To see first-hand refugees of all ages landing onto the north shore is haunting and highlighted just how much of a global humanitarian crisis this is. No child, no family and no individual should be subjected to this desperation in which the only way to reach safety is through dangerous sea passage or the untrustworthy hands of smugglers. It was published in the Aegean Boat Report that on October 10th, a boat capsized in attempt to reach Europe. Nine people died, and twenty-five people are missing. One incident of many in which life is lost needlessly in the search for asylum. Although my efforts were but a drop in the ocean, the importance of kindness and human resilience is so crucial, an individual can’t help everyone, but everyone can help someone, as a human being why wouldn’t you want to help those is peril?

Olivia - former ‘Mo Chara’ crew member and trainee paramedic based in the UK