Volunteers save lives in Vientiane, Laos, where road toll is among world’s worst
Vientiane has been dubbed the most relaxed capital in the world, with its wide boulevards, low-rise buildings, and sleepy, colonial charm.
But come nightfall the streets in this laid-back city become extremely dangerous and lawless.
Speed limits in Laos are rarely enforced. There’s not a single red-light camera, no roadside breath units, and underage and unlicensed driving is rife.
The high amount of drink driving and speeding at night is frightening. Add to this a national obsession with driving up the wrong side of the road, and it is little wonder Vientiane has arguably the worst road toll per capita in Asia, and one of the worst in the world.
It’s 11:00pm in Vientiane. A motorcyclist flies along at breakneck speed with no helmet, several drinks under his belt, and little regard for the traffic light ahead.
Suddenly from nowhere, a truck ploughs through the intersection and impales him on a fence. He lies unconscious and bleeding at the side of the road, with spinal injuries.
I’d say as many as seven people a day die in Vientiane, on the roads or soon after.Vientiane Rescue volunteer Sebastien Perret
A passing pedestrian finds him but what can she do? This is not Australia or even the West, but impoverished Laos, where emergency services barely exist.
Her only option is to put the man in a tuk-tuk rickshaw and send him to a hospital. But the tuk-tuk driver refuses – he doesn’t want blood on his seats.
The official ambulances are only used to transfer patients between hospitals. So without assistance from volunteers, serious accident victims would be – and often are – left to die on the side of the road.
“I would say between one to three people die on the roads here every day,” says Sebastien Perret, a French paramedic who helped set up volunteer emergency service Vientiane Rescue.
“Of those we take to hospital about 50 per cent die. Even the hospitals have few skills, little training, and scant materials to save lives.
“I’d say as many as seven people a day die in Vientiane, on the roads or soon after.”
Ordinary people to the rescue
Vientiane Rescue is made up of ordinary Lao people – teenagers, students, housewives, shop keepers. There’s even a vet.
Most of the volunteers are impoverished, lucky to earn $100 a month in their day jobs. But they are all united in their passion to save lives. Most regularly volunteer 20-30 hours a week to the roadside rescue service.
“We’re like a family,” says Souphavanh Duangkhamphai, who recently celebrated her birthday at the Vientiane Rescue office on her day off.
“They’re the most inspiring people – big hearts, they just love helping those in need, even if it means putting their own safety at risk for a stranger.”
I’m invited to come along one night to see the volunteers in action. It’s late on a Saturday night, the worst night for accidents.
Every accident in Vientiane is a blood bath.Vientiane Rescue volunteer Sebastien Perret
I find my way to the base – a dirty, rundown house that Vientiane Rescue rents for $US130 a month. There’s not even a proper phone. Emergency calls come in on an old mobile to whoever is holding it at the time.
Suddenly the phone rings and we pile into the back of the rescue vehicle – a 4WD that was donated as a wreck, panel-beaten, and fashioned into something resembling an ambulance.
There is a flashing light on the roof and even a siren. But there is no proper stretcher or bed, few medicines, and little of the modern equipment that saves lives in ambulances in the West.
I’m sitting on the floor because without seatbelts or a proper seat it feels safer. Suddenly we’re flying along, weaving dangerously through traffic. I’m praying the siren will warn other drivers to keep out of our way. All I can do is grip onto the seat and hope we don’t have to brake in a hurry.
At the accident scene two motorcyclists have collided head-on. Neither rider was wearing a helmet. One man lies on the side of the road with head injuries. He’s bleeding from the ears – it’s a bad sign.
The volunteers check for vital signs, bandage his wounds, and lift him just enough to slip a plastic spinal board beneath him.
He’s loaded into the vehicle and we head to the nearby Mittaphab (Friendship) Hospital – the only hospital in Vientiane that treats fractures.
The hospital is desperately under-resourced. At night only interns are on duty. The injured man is carried to a spartan room and placed on a bed where a medic is waiting.
Before the volunteers leave they remove his bloodied bandages for no other reason than that they need them again for the next emergency. They proceed to wash the bandages at the sink in soapy water.
These same bandages have already been used, then washed, then reused countless times. A single bandage might cost less than a dollar here but the volunteers can’t afford to replace them or even cut them to size.
“Every accident in Vientiane is a blood bath,” Mr Perret says.
“It would be better to use new bandages every time. They’re cheap, maybe less than $1 each. But we can’t afford to buy new ones so we have to use them again and again, washing them by hand with soap.”
Likewise, a cervical collar covered in blood is removed from the man’s neck and washed in the sink. Until recently, Vientiane Rescue had one cervical collar and only one suction kit for clearing a victim’s airways. A second kit was bought after a young man choked to death on his own blood because the rescue team arrived at an accident without one. A single kit – simply a plastic bottle with a pump – costs about $30.
In fact, Vientiane Rescue can barely afford to operate at all. The volunteers rely entirely on private donations to keep the emergency service running.
Yet donations are typically small – as little as $1 to $2 – and mostly come from accident survivors or victims’ relatives grateful the volunteers have saved a loved one’s life. Most of the money never makes it to the bank – it is immediately spent on urgent supplies or petrol for the ambulance.
On the night I accompany the rescue team, one volunteer shows me Vientiane Rescue’s bankbook. It has two deposits to its name. One is a donation of $1,000 from a French-Lao couple who run a boutique store for tourists. Without this donation,
Vientiane Rescue would have just $200 in the bank this month.
Mr Perret has done wonders to raise funds and publicity for Vientiane Rescue. He trained as a paramedic and fire fighter with the French Red Cross outside Paris, before moving to Laos four years ago.
He helped establish Vientiane Rescue after seeing an ambulance at a road accident near his own home.
“It was more like a taxi service to hospital,” he says.
“There was one ambulance but no training, barely any equipment at all.”
Mr Perrett’s involvement began by giving the team training in first aid and raising funds for medical equipment and supplies.
There are now about 30 volunteers with skills in CPR, burns and wound management, and lifting patients who are unconscious or have spinal injuries.
He hopes to one day train the volunteers in firefighting, something virtually non-existent in Vientiane.
Japan has donated fire trucks and equipment to the Lao police force, but police still lack the skills or will to enter a burning building to rescue victims trapped inside.
“The police are scared to fight fires,” he says.
“They won’t go inside a burning building because they have no training. But often there’s someone trapped inside. We could be useful if we had more equipment.”
One local company supplies 300 litres of petrol a month to help keep the team’s ambulance on the road.
Two more vehicles have been donated, but that means more fuel is needed to run them. And as Vientiane Rescue becomes more widely known, it is increasingly being inundated with emergency calls. There is still no proper stretcher bed in two vehicles.
Other donations have helped buy a second-hand ‘jaws of life’ to cut free victims trapped in a smashed vehicle.
But what the volunteers most need in order to save many more lives is hydraulic equipment to lift vehicles that are crushed together or upside down. This equipment is sadly in dire need. But even second-hand, the equipment is unaffordable.
The volunteers at Vientiane Rescue dream of expanding the service beyond the capital Vientiane.
“There are so many provinces in Laos with no rescue service, but they’re just as needy,” Ms Duangkhamphai says.
Mr Perret praised his team of volunteers, saying despite their youth, poverty, and lack of qualifications, they were doing an amazing job saving lives.
“They’re the best people I’ve met in the world.”
“So often they risk their lives to save people they don’t even know. They’re so dedicated. I love them so much,” he says.
The motorcyclist impaled on the fence would almost certainly be a paraplegic now if he had gone to hospital in a tuk-tuk. But because the volunteers arrived in time to lift the man without moving his spine he stands a small chance of walking again.
Hundreds more victims also owe their lives to Vientiane Rescue.
By Anne Barker – 24 November 2014
Link to original article: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-11-22/volunteers-save-lives-on-streets-of-vientiane/5910698