Ride Laos’ Blood-Soaked Streets With These Bad-Ass Rescuers
Watching the sun slowly set over the Mekong river from Vientiane’s riverside, it’s easy to be lulled into a sense of calm and unhurried ease in Laos’ sleepy capital. After remaining stagnant for years in the wake the 1970’s civil war and heavy American bombing campaign, the nation’s economy has picked up in the last several decades due to an increase in foreign investment and tourism, allowing many in Laos to realize dreams that were previously unattainable.
This is good news for the country as a whole, but it has also accelerated the development of problems in Vientiane that plague larger urban centers — as growing numbers of vehicles populate the roads, life expectancies rise and population density increases. Lacking official first response services and having only three public hospitals that themselves lack most of the equipment found in modern facilities, many people are in a precarious state if faced with a medical emergency or are injured on Vientiane’s roads.
Drunk driving and speeding are common and the fact that only 20 percent of motorists have a license amplifies the risk. The few ambulances which do operate in Vientiane are only available to the wealthy, leaving the majority to their own devices and causing many avoidable deaths.
Sebastian Perret, a French paramedic and firefighter, traveled to Laos in 2010 and witnessed a road accident in Vientiane that killed one man and critically wounded another, a typical incident which occurs almost daily in the city. He expected some kind of aid from the medical personnel at a nearby hospital but was dismayed to find no response which left the living victim’s chance of survival largely up to fate. Deciding then that he had to use his skills to prevent more lives from being lost, Perret took it upon himself to start Vientiane Rescue, the first free ambulance service in Laos to attend to the needs of the citizens of Vientiane.
Started in 2010 and based in a volunteer’s home Perret and the first Vientiane Rescue team slept on the floor for four years before they moved to a small rented office on the grounds of Wat That Luang temple, Laos’ most famous landmark. They have since expanded to two more locations with makeshift stations made from modified shipping containers and as of August 2015 were staffed by 163 active members. The volunteers that have joined to aid their fellow countrymen are an inspiring team, some as young as 12 and most not beyond their 30s.
Initially trained by Perret in basic first responder techniques, they have recently begun to receive some support from EMS organizations in nearby Thailand, where they have traveled to gain further instruction on medical practice, firefighting and scuba diving. With this additional training they now also fight fires and undertake underwater response with scuba gear.
Striving to do all they can in any situation, they have also began to rescue neglected and abandoned animals, as well as capturing venomous snakes and providing a safe environment for at-risk youth to spend time with the team — all free of charge.
When I visited the Wat That Luang station in August 2015, there was a small menagerie being cared for by the team, consisting of two monkeys, three dogs and one horse which was found wandering the streets. Despite providing so many services to the public, they struggle to continue operations as they receive no regular support from any governmental or international institutions and depend on sporadic donations from large Lao businesses and private benefactors.
During the first of the five days I spent with Vientiane Rescue, I passed the time at the main office with the team; you could trick yourself into thinking you were at an after-school hangout or community center as the volunteers busied themselves with homework, checked their Facebook accounts and joked around. The phone rang constantly, mostly wrong numbers and the occasional prank caller. When the alarm bell sounded, signaling a real emergency, it was as if a bolt of lightening had torn into the room and everyone jolted into action running toward one of their secondhand ambulances or modified pickup trucks and quickly donned sterile medical gloves.
Despite the sirens and lights that made our presence quite apparent, some cars failed to give us right of way. This infuriated Perret and he pounded on the door of the ambulance and screamed at the drivers in fluent Lao, his cool and stoic demeanor swept aside by contempt for the apathy many of Vientiane’s population exhibited in the face of our urgency.
We stopped near a small crowd of people circled around a damaged motorbike. They offered a mixed response of curiosity and laughter but little help to the middle-aged gentleman sitting distraught in the road. The darkness of night made the lights of the ambulance dance on the faces of the team as they worked, checked for neck and spinal injuries, disinfected and bandaged any lacerations and asked the victim if he felt any specific pains.
As several volunteers stabilized his neck and moved him onto a casualty board, the man’s young daughter looked on in quiet desperation. After the patient was secured in the ambulance, we quickly sped away — and soon received another call while en route to the hospital. There’d been a double motorcycle crash on the same road we were already on.
Perret and I exited the ambulance and it sped off with the injured man; another group of volunteers was already at the scene, having arrived on their motorbikes. Perret quickly assessed the injuries of the two victims. One man who was able to stand paced back and forth with a look of remorse on his face. He gazed at a woman lying in the street, which was quickly being stained with gasoline from the wrecked motorcycles.
The smell of fuel filled the air as her head and neck were secured and she was moved into another ambulance that had arrived from Wat That Luang. In the back of the ambulance, the middle-aged woman started to lose consciousness, having suffered head trauma. Perret also suspected she had internal bleeding. He yelled to keep her awake, to avoid the fatal consequences which would occur if she passed out. She managed to stay with us on the ride.
We pulled up to the hospital’s driveway, where a statue of a nurse greeted us. The woman was rapidly wheeled into the white, fluorescent-lit corridors. “Do patients here receive free treatment?” I asked after the urgency of the moment had passed. “No treatment if you can’t pay for it,” Perret replied. “Health care is not free.”
After we returned to the Friendship bridge station, I saw one young boy of about 12 with the team. I asked Perret about his story. “His mother said she does not know what to do with him, that he keeps getting into trouble and won’t listen to her. There are a lot of crazy people around so she gave him to us.”
Around midnight, heavy rain started to fall and turned much of Vientiane into a dangerous mire. Perret and I headed back into the city center on his motorbike as the volunteers settled in for another night.
The next few days progressed in the same pattern as the first: motorbike accidents, house calls and occasional false alarms due to drunk callers. The team was about to eat dinner when a call came in for a raging fire that had already destroyed much of a rattan workshop. The drive to the scene was chaotic. Two car-loads of volunteers went to assist as well as some others on motorbikes.
The few members of the team instructed in firefighting put on their flame-resistant gear and walked toward the blaze with hoses in hand. The street was filled with hundreds of people who admired the spectacle and took pictures with their smartphones. Others raced into the adjacent buildings to remove the goods inside.
A water truck had arrived and several volunteers scrambled to attach a high-pressure hose to the outlet as the three-man Vientiane Rescue fire fighting team grappled the other end. The heat was intense even from the street and there was danger of gas cylinders from cooking stoves exploding. Other volunteers handed out bottled water and helped clear the street as vehicles raced past. Their work continued for three hours until the blaze was nearly extinguished.
Perret had at one time wanted to become a monk in France, but after he traveled to Asia changed his mind “I don’t believe in anything anymore after coming here and seeing how bad things are,” he said. Despite this hard awakening, he is still a remarkably driven individual. When I asked him if he planned to stay in Laos for the rest of his life, he was unsure.
“I do love and respect these volunteers so much,” he said. “We are a family, we do care for and love each other. It would be very hard for me to leave. I had a nice life in France but here I know we can make a difference and this give our lives, my life, a sense of meaning.”
If you would like to support Vientiane Rescue, you can visit its Indigogo page.