A day in the life of a Palestinian ambulance crew

A day in the life of a Palestinian ambulance crew

EMT Mohamed is completes the paperwork for Anwar and Samah in the back of the ambulance

4 December 2015

Since the start of the current violence and instability affecting the West Bank, the Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS) has recorded 306 attacks against its ambulances and paramedics by Israeli security forces and settlers, as well as a number of incidents where they have been prevented or delayed from reaching the injured or transferring them to hospitals. Last week, MAP’s Programme Support Officer in the West Bank joined a PRCS ambulance crew to witness the daily challenges they face transferring patients for vital treatment through the occupied Palestinian territory, even outside of the context of the clashes. Here is what she saw:

Mohamed, Ahmed and Khalil start work at 9.30am with a cup of coffee in the offices of the Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS) – the main provider of ambulance services for Palestinians – in Jerusalem. They’re meant to finish at 3pm, but Ahmed says he is doing 24-hour shifts to avoid the daily journey to Jerusalem from his hometown Nablus in the West Bank. In the current instability, the Israeli military checkpoints on the route can make for a very long commute.

The first task of the day is to take 55-year-old Anwar back to Gaza from the Makassed hospital in Jerusalem, where he stayed for a week receiving treatment for a condition affecting his lungs. His wife, Samah, explained: “My husband has suffered from breathing problems for three years but it has never been this bad. His asthma has rapidly deteriorated. Thankfully we received the permits to travel out of Gaza within three days. I am convinced the situation there is making him ill: the stress of poverty, the conflict and the blockade.” Samah accompanied him on the journey to Makassed, but that is all she saw of Jerusalem – the accompanier permit she was issued by the Israeli authorities forbade her to leave the hospital compound to visit the city.

I am convinced the situation [in Gaza] is making him ill: the stress of poverty, the conflict and the blockade.

After the ICU nurse has prepared Anwar’s discharge papers, the paramedics put on scrubs to transfer him to the ambulance stretcher. With the sirens on, they drive to the Erez crossing into Gaza. The ambulance is in a hurry because they also need to pick up 6-day old Rania coming from Gaza, and take her to Nablus for treatment. At the PRCS dispatch office, they were informed that Rania was intubated and receiving oxygen, and so they cannot keep her waiting at Erez. On route, several cars ignore the sirens and one deliberately slowed down in front of the ambulance, allowing time for a passenger to shake an index finger with the words:“you’re not getting through.”

Once finally at Erez, Khalil gets out of the ambulance to show the papers to the soldier manning the first barrier. After being let through and parking in front of the crossing, another soldier comes out to collect the papers of passengers Anwar and Samah. The three paramedics also then need to fill out forms with their personal details.

There appears to be a problem with the coordination, and a fifteen-minute delay ensues before the ambulance can continue to the vehicle crossing usually reserved for diplomatic vehicles.

Tanks and military vehicles line a fence on one side, behind is the main crossing terminal, and in front are private security guards with automatic weapons blocking the entry to Gaza. On the left is the separation barrier, about 5 meters high. We wait another ten minutes for a staff member of the crossing to come out and start the process. When someone finally arrives, he is dressed head-to-toe in protective clothing, having been informed that Anwar has an infection.

The crossing’s commander still needs to give the green light. An Erez staff member sets off with an empty stretcher and a plastic box to transfer baby Rania in. Mohamed is not pleased: the staff member was supposed to have taken Anwar and Samah with him to the other side – via the kilometre-long walkway through Gaza’s no-man’s-land – giving the crew adequate time to disinfect the ambulance in time for the baby’s arrival.

After thirty minutes, the staff member comes back with Rania and her aunt Mariam. Before they can get to the ambulance, they must go through a scanner and have their personal belongings searched. The stretcher Anwar is on needs to stay with the ambulance, so in order to free up a stretcher for him to be transferred into Gaza, baby Rania and the oxygen bottle she is attached to are placed on a nearby bench. Anwar is then rolled out of the ambulance, but must wait a while until enough men are gathered to lift him onto the transfer stretcher.

Eventually, Anwar and his wife are walked back into Gaza where he will receive further treatment at Nasser hospital. Khalil and Ahmed start cleaning the stretcher with disinfectant. Finally, after waiting outdoors in the plastic box for over thirty minutes, they move Rania safely into the ambulance.

In the meantime, Mariam explains that Rania is the first baby in the family for sixteen years. Eight months into the pregnancy, Mariam’s sister started bleeding and was rushed to the hospital for a caesarean section. They noticed that Rania was unconscious and not breathing well. As Rania’s mother was still recovering from the operation, and men are not allowed into the maternity wards of hospitals, it was Mariam who was assigned to travel with baby Rania, although she herself is disabled after having lost an arm in an accident.

We drive off towards Nablus where Rania will be treated for jaundice and stabilised. As PRCS only has a limited amount of ambulances like this one that are licensed to drive within both the Green Line and East Jerusalem, they have arranged for an ambulance from Nablus to meet them mid-way. To continue all the way to Nablus would be too time consuming, as the ambulance is needed inside Jerusalem. Over the radio, the two ambulances coordinate to meet at a side road to transfer Rania and Mariam.

Rania is placed in a special baby carrier while still receiving additional oxygen, and sent on her way to the care she urgently needs in Nablus.

 **Patient names have been changed to protect their identities.

(Source / 04.12.2015)

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