Brazil: Swift action saves lives
Although it is never easy to assist victims in an emergency, some situations are more difficult to cope with than others. The struggle of a one-month old infant to breathe was one of the most critical situations that Eliézer Lima, who heads the ICRC's community first-aid programme in Rio de Janeiro, had ever faced.
At first, Mr Lima tried giving the tiny body gentle pats in an attempt to free the infant's throat of any obstruction. But this did not help. The infant was gasping for air, clearly struggling to stay alive. Then it went into cardiac arrest. Mr Lima rushed it to the nearest hospital in an ICRC van, accompanied by its mother, its grandmother and a neighbour. On the way there, he attempted cardiopulmonary resuscitation several times. The infant was immediately admitted to hospital, where it received the necessary treatment. Its life is now out of danger.
This incident took place during one of the many visits paid by Red Cross staff to Complexo da Maré, one of the neighbourhoods of Rio de Janeiro in which the ICRC has been working since 2008.
Together with the Brazilian Red Cross, the ICRC teaches a course in basic first aid to members of the community in an effort to mitigate the humanitarian consequences of armed violence. The skills they acquire enable residents to respond to emergencies.
"We know how important this course is because most of our graduates tell us stories about how they've used their skills," said Mr Lima. "In addition to providing first aid, they give advice to members of the community."
The most frequent medical emergencies are firearm wounds, burns, and injuries caused by household and traffic accidents. In one incident Fernanda*, a first-aider who attended the course, treated over 20 people, most of whom had been wounded by firearms during a shoot-out between the police and an armed gang. Local medical professionals were unwilling to venture out into the streets, so neighbours called on Fernanda to help. She saved the life of a young man whose foot got caught in a train track. He is still grateful to her for the swift action she took.
Volunteers from the Brazilian Red Cross, working with the ICRC, teach the course. "Things get complicated around here when there is an emergency," said 20-year-old Aline de Souza, one of about 20 students taking the course at the headquarters of Central Única das Favelas (a non-governmental organization) in Pedra do Sapo, Complexo do Alemão. This area is made up of 12 emergency housing projects built on the Serra da Misericórdia, in Rio's North Zone, and is home to some 85,000 people. "Ambulances can't even get here," she said, “because of the steep slopes and narrow streets.”
Ms de Souza once had to carry a person down a flight of stairs for urgent treatment. Since the city's emergency services have trouble reaching certain areas, people are often carried on makeshift stretchers, usually made of sheets, to the nearest place where they can get help.
The ICRC has been working in the Complexo do Alemão for over two years. According to data published by the Brazilian Economic Institute for Applied Research (IPEA), a public foundation, life expectancy in the area is 65 years compared with an average of 72 in the rest of the city.
Over 300 residents in seven neighbourhoods trained in first aid
Together with the Brazilian Red Cross branch in Rio de Janeiro state, the ICRC teaches a first-aid course to residents in seven neighbourhoods lacking emergency or preventive health-care services. City services rarely come to many of these areas, where there is a constant threat of armed violence.
The course, which consists of 20 hours of classes, is taught over four Saturdays. The students learn how to treat firearm wounds, burns, choking, and injuries caused by household and traffic accidents. These skills boost health-care services in the neighbourhoods and save lives during emergencies.
Over 300 residents in seven neighbourhoods have attended the course over the past two years. It is taught by 80 instructors trained by the Brazilian Red Cross since 2009; 43 of the instructors are local residents.
- 80 instructors have been trained by the Brazilian Red Cross
- 300 people have acquired basic first-aid skills
* Not her real name