Sunday, November 11, 2012

Trying to Save a Life in Bangkok

Medics and first responders work on a child hit by a vehicle in Bangkok Saturday night. The medics worked on the boy for more than 30 minutes but they were not able to revive him. 

One of the stories I'm working on while I'm here is how Bangkok and other fast developing Asian cities grapple with growth; how they meet the basic needs of citizens drawn by perceived economic opportunity the bright lights of the city. 

In Bangkok, one of those issues is emergency medical care and first responders. 

Bangkok has a police force. They deal with crime and public safety. Bangkok has a fire department. They deal with fires. 

What Bangkok doesn't have is a publicly funded emergency medical department. So people hurt in accidents, fires, crimes may have police and fire respond to their event, but neither police nor fire will render aid or transport them to a hospital. It's not their job. 

There are two large Buddhist based foundations that run emergency medical operations through the city. These organizations are privately financed and rely on volunteer medics to meet the first response needs in a city of 12 million. To call it a challenge is to significantly understate the situation. 

The Ruamkatanyu Foundation and Poh Teck Tung got their start picking up the dead from the streets of Bangkok (from crimes scenes, accidents, suicides etc) and transporting them to morgues and hospitals. They initially got some fame as Bangkok's "body snatchers." 

Sometimes though the dead they were picking up weren't dead but were in need of emergency medical care. So they started volunteer medical response and ambulance teams. And now both organizations field thousands of people who roam the city streets, mostly at night, offering aid to strangers and helping the injured get medical help. 

The volunteers who work the streets give a lot more than just their time. While they work under the umbrella of the Ruamkatanyu Foundation and Poh Teck Tung, they have to provide all their own gear. 

That includes uniforms and rubber gloves, ambulances and oxygen tanks, firefighting and snake catching gear (they are frequently called upon to capture snakes, even in the heart of Bangkok 25 foot long Burmese pythons are not unusual). 

And yes, you read that correctly - the ambulances these volunteers drive are their privately owned vehicles marked with the Foundation's stickers, the oxygen they administer at an accident they've bought with their own funds. Even the gas they use to race to an accident scene they have to buy. Many spend up to 1/3 of their monthly pay on supplies for their ambulances. One driver joked that he didn't drink because all of his money went into his rescue gear. 

Ruamkatanyu, the younger and smaller of the organizations, has been around for about 65 years and has about 7,000 volunteers (they're not all on the street every night). Poh Teck Tung, has been around for about 100 years and has many more volunteers. 

The foundations' (and volunteers') work isn't limited to Bangkok. After the 2004 tsunami in southern Thailand both groups sent volunteers to Phuket to help with the clean up and body disposal. One Ruamkatanyu volunteer told me he thinks he helped take care of more than 2,500 deceased after the tsunami. Marko Cunningham, originally from New Zealand but now a Ruamkatanyu volunteer, said he got onto the ambulance crews after the 2004 tsunami - that after not sleeping for weeks straight and helping take care of 2,500 bodies he never wanted to touch a dead body again. 

Cunningham has run flood relief operations in the provinces north of Bangkok and conducted emergency medical training for foundations in northern Thailand and eastern Myanmar (Burma). Both groups have orphanages and schools. Poh Teck Tung has a large public hospital in Bangkok (the website is in Thai). 

These volunteers fill a vitally important role. If it weren't for them, many people would never get the first response medical care they need. Marko Cunningham is trying to buy another ambulance for his crew at Ruamakatanya Foundation. You can read about it here


NOTE: Some graphic content in the slideshow. 

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