Medical teams stay poised for 30-second rapid response action


RAPID RESPONSE teams of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (Sarc) crowd into their compact centre in the basement of the society’s nine-storey hospital in the Zahira district of the capital. Young men and women in red jumpsuits collect walkie-talkies and thrust them into breast pockets.

The call to prayer issues from the minarets of the Ayoub An-sari mosque next door, an occasional protest venue, as the teams climb up the ramp to the parking lot where they run ambulance engines and check medications and equipment.

Each team consists of four “first-aiders” and a driver, all volunteers. Several teams are on 30-second rapid response, others on standby. Since unrest began 11 months ago, Friday has been the most challenging day due to anti- government protests after noon prayers.

Ambulances do not move until the operations room is clear about the nature of an incident. If there is uncertainty, a four-wheel drive scout car is dispatched to provide visuals of the scene and report back to the ops room.

There are only three or four doctors among the 100 regular volunteers, the rest are first- aiders. Reena Hattem (30), a political science graduate who works for Mercy Corps, has been volunteering for 11 years and has become a trainer.

“We do theoretical training for six hours a day for three weeks and 40 hours practical work in a hospital. In the past 10 months, we have also had advanced training.”

This is to deal with war emergencies. Her team was first on the scene after a bombing at a police station nearby.

Dr Muhammad Nour Audi (24), an intern at a public hospital, was dispatched last month to the Damascus countryside where team members moved from house to house treating 70 people in four hours. After dark they had to use torches.

“One patient had been shot four times and was bleeding heavily . . . It took me 15 minutes to find a vein to give him plasma. It was difficult to calm the situation. I tried to focus on the job, on weapons injuries . . . I wanted to do neurosurgery but now I am doing internal medicine.”

Secretary general and operations chief of the Damascus branch Khaled Erksoussi says: “We have six squads here today and two in Douma and two in Germania. We also have two teams for disaster response distributing food and non-food items to places cut off by the current situation.”

The Sarc, founded in 1942, is an independent organisation that elects its board of directors. It has 14 branches and 80 sub-branches throughout the country. In the past they have responded to natural disasters and external wars. “This is a unique situation . . . It is very difficult to work when the conflict is internal . . . We have to use our impartiality” to gain credit with both sides.

“If a house if fired on, we don’t report it. We only care about helping the most vulnerable people. We co-ordinate with everyone who will give us access.”

However, it can be more difficult to reach the opposition than the authorities. Sarc’s national chief was killed in Idlib and a volunteer killed in Homs when his ambulance came under fire.

A convoy bound for Bludan, flooded by refugees from fighting in the resort of Zabadani, was halted on Thursday by mines, but convoys did get through on both Saturday and yesterday.

Sarc and the International Committee of the Red Cross took to Homs, the current epicentre of the rebellion, “four trailers containing 4,000-5,000 food baskets that can feed a family of five for a week,” Mr Erksoussi said, “a lot of food for a lot of need”.

Local Sarc teams have been distributing food parcels whenever possible.

Over the door of the operations room, none of the green, yellow and red lights is illuminated. Inside, two young men sit in front of computer screens cruising social media sites for information that might help anticipate attacks.

Tamman Muhrez, an engineer from Latakia, heads operations.

“I had two hours off today for the first time in 10 months. During this time we gained people prepared to work under fire but lost those who want to go to hospitals and deliver flowers.”