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Haiti: Red Cross ambulances among the few that can cross barricades

15-12-2010 Feature

With the cholera epidemic still taking a heavy toll and barricades blocking the streets of a poor neighbourhood of Port-au-Prince, Red Cross vehicles are among the few able to pass freely on their way to take injured and sick people to hospital.

"I'm feeling fine because we've been doing good work here," says Caleb, whose eyes betray his fatigue. "It's true, I haven't had much sleep recently, but it's worth it."

Caleb, who just turned 25, heads the team of Red Cross first-aiders who work in Martissant, a deprived part of the Haitian capital whose 150,000 residents have to live with the tension so often in the air. Day and night Caleb receives emergency calls for help.

"Since the cholera epidemic started, my telephone has rung almost once every half hour," says Caleb. "In addition to our ambulance, we've been using a tap-tap – a sort of pick-up truck – to take about 20 people a day to hospital. Tap-taps are normally used for public transport here, but ours displays the red cross."

Speed saves lives

At 10 in the morning, the sun is already beating down on the hills of Martissant. The team is just back from a mission and they are hot in their raincoats, gloves and rubber boots. But anyone dealing with a disease as contagious as cholera needs this protection. Clothing and vehicle are cleaned with a chlorine solution after each trip.

"This is not a good job if you have an allergy to chlorine," Caleb jokes as the telephone rings yet again. But his face is serious when he hangs up. "It's a little girl with severe dehydration. We'd better move fast."

Within seconds the ambulance has left, team members in place, lights flashing and siren wailing. Moments later, Yannick, another team member, is cradling the eight-year-old in his arms. A crowd gathers to watch the child, named Darmela, with her exhausted eyes staring between protruding cheekbones, as she is laid on the stretcher. "I think it's cholera, she's been vomiting for the last two days," says her mother, who dialed the Red Cross number after hearing about the ambulance service during an awareness-raising meeting at the market.

In no time the ambulance has delivered the young victim and her mother to the cholera-treatment centre run by Médecins sans frontières. Back at base, the team's clothing and vehicle are still wet with chlorine when the phone rings again. Another small girl very ill with cholera, this time on the other side of Martissant.

Working in the tense streets of Port-au-Prince

"Darmela made it!" Caleb joyfully announces the next day. He had been sure it was too late, he says. "It's vital that people know the basic facts about cholera and that they call us in time. That's why we keep organizing neighbourhood meetings to put across the message."

Caleb stresses the importance of the Red Cross being well known to the population and respected by it. This counts when the situation is tense, as it is these days in Martissant, where manned barricades with piles of rubble and old burning tires prevent vehicles from passing. "Besides cholera victims, we've also been taking people with gunshot wounds to hospital," he says. "A few hours ago a motorcyclist fired into a crowd, hitting a young woman and three boys. Fortunately we got to them in time, and that's because the Red Cross is well thought of by all and we can go wherever we want. They know we're there to save lives."

"Naturally it warms my heart when people applaud as we drive by. It's a concrete expression of the goodwill that allows us to do our job. And that's the only way I'm able to overcome my own fear in order to help people survive."


Photos

 

First-aid post in Martissant, Port-au-Prince. Caleb holds a sick child in his arms.
© ICRC / O. Miltcheva / ht-e-06566.jpg

 

A girl sick with cholera being taken to hospital by the Haitian Red Cross.
© ICRC / O. Miltcheva / ht-e-06565

 

At a marketplace in Martissant, a Red Cross volunteer tells people about the hygiene precautions needed to ward off cholera and about the ambulance service available to them and how to contact it.
© ICRC / O. Miltcheva