Medics on the edge

2014-05-19 00:00

A STRETCHED Durban public health paramedic service faces threats to the lives of staff every day, while often wasting time responding to emergencies that are non-existent.

According to medics on the road, while the metropolitan public is often abusive towards them, the general public has little idea of what they are expected to do each day.

Staff at the Emergency Medical Service (EMS), a division of the KZN Health Department, said hoax calls, over-exaggerated emergencies and other people simply trying to use the state ambulance as a free taxi service are not uncommon.

“Some people just call the ambulance to see it drive past their home. For them it is a joke. To us it is waste of valuable time and resources,” said EMS spokesperson Robert McKenzie.

Recently The Witness joined the EMS on a weekend 12-hour night shift. The shift exposed a Durban very unlike the bustling city portrayed in glamorous television adverts, but rather as a city that is abandoned at night.

Cardboard and scrap collectors push their trolleys down Yusuf Dadoo Street and Anton Lembede Road. Hundreds of homeless people, some as young as 10 years old, are the only people seen walking the deserted pavements or sleeping on them.

The inner city at night does not look nor feel safe.

“There are areas that have been fenced off by the council near Albert Park to prevent the whoonga trade. Guys were making the drug in the drains,” said advanced life support paramedic Dushie Brijall.

“We must always be cautious of our surroundings. I have been threatened with a firearm before. I have been robbed. This is a reality we deal with,” said Brijall.

A common thread mentioned was the need for counselling. The paramedics said the trauma they deal with on a daily basis sees many medics looking for outlets — some turning to alcohol while others see their personal relationships strained.

McKenzie, who is based on the South Coast, said there is a distinct difference between urban and rural communities.

“Rural communities are friendly and courteous while urban residents are more demanding and in some instances hurl abuse at the paramedics. The rural people are pleased to see us. They have so little yet they offer us food, want to give us vegetables and continually thank us. In the urban areas we are simply expected to respond and often come under criticism for any number of reasons.

“I maintain we are not perfect but there is not a person in this service who does not want to help a patient as quickly as possible,” said McKenzie.

Paramedic Alaric van Wyhe said what makes working in the city so difficult is the places they must respond to.

“There are numerous high rise flats in the Point area where the lifts don’t work. We must trudge up 15 storeys with our equipment to administer care to the patient. Then we must remove them to a hospital. This same person must be stretchered down those same 15 flights of stairs.

“I recall an occasion when the police were in a shoot-out with a suspect in a dark area covered in bushes. We were called as the police suspected the man had been shot.

“We had to approach this man in the dark — unaware if he was injured or not, armed or not. It was really scary. We eventually found the injured suspect, who had dropped the gun, and tended to him,” said Van Wyhe.

Wentworth: heartbeat of Durban’s EMS

THE heartbeat of Durban’s emergency medical service sits in Wentworth — a state-of-the-art facility where staff working in the operations centre from dispatch to fielding calls are experienced paramedics. Across five large television screens — each depicting a region in the city — there is real-time GPS tracking of each emergency vehicle.

Call centre operator Shireen Naidoo was the first person to take a call when a truck ploughed into several vehicles in September 2013 on Field’s Hill killing 24 people.

“By the time I took the third call we had units on site. Co-ordinating calls can be stressful. You must work out what the emergency is and the urgency required. We must also try and be aware of whether it is a hoax call. This is particularly difficult.

“The thing is you never know whether someone is making it up or not. What if you don’t respond and something is seriously wrong? These are the challenges we must deal with,” said Naidoo.

Her colleague Connie Ngcongo said people are often frantic. “You must calm them down, find landmarks, get street addresses.

“I still feel though we must be more accessible. For instance what about the deaf? We need to be more accommodating to more people,” said Ngcongo.

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