A Student Nurses First Experience of Volunteering First Aid to the Refugees of Calais.
Part 2: Baptism of Fire
Please note, the names that appear in this text have been changed to protect the identity of those individuals.
The first thing that hit me was the smell. As we approached, there was a familiar stench of portaloos. Anyone that has been to a festival will appreciate that there is no mistaking that smell. I had the pleasure of using the toilets at the entrance to the camp and I can only describe them as a mix between the toilets in China and Glastonbury - essentially, they were portaloos but with high squatters. The toilets were cleaned every Monday and since today was Saturday, you can imagine the state of them. I tried to use the toilets as little as possible and when I did, I went armed with gloves and toilet roll. I couldn't help but feel disgusted by the thought of staying here, and using these facilities indefinitely, like the refugees had no choice to do.
There was also a smell burning and it became clear, throughout our stay, that fires were a real problem in camp with lots of buildings and discarded rubbish piles now just free-standing piles of charred wood and ash. Having to use fires for warmth comes with risks.
When we walked through the camp for the first time I was a little bit too scared to look up. When I did, it was just like I had seen on the TV; lines of tiny buildings made out of old MDF and corrugated iron roofs. One thing I hadn't anticipated was the intricate art work on the fronts of the buildings, and as we went further into camp, the organisation of shops and even restaurants. Civilisation had emerged from the chaos.
The first aid caravans were organised into a triangle with a small space in the middle where patients could wait for their turn. Two caravans were already open with a volunteer in each and Emma opened the third to show us around. It was just too busy so we just got stuck in - it really was a baptism of fire.
The majority of people were coming in with blocked noses, headaches, sore throats and coughs - all the usual signs of a cold, which after checking for signs of infection could be remedied with Vicks, Strepsils and cough syrup (although rendered completely useless, it made the patients happy). A lot of people would just turn up and ask for what they wanted, others just came for the contact, which was fine. Many (I'd guess about 1/3) had chest infections which we couldn't treat, so we could only give paracetamol to bring their temperatures down and refer them to Salaam, the medical centre on site open Monday-Friday. Not ideal since it was Saturday and these people needed antibiotics. Many people had chest infections that had been rumbling on for months due to the conditions they were living in. It was very hard to imagine living here and feeling unwell at the same time. The sheer amount of these presentations gave us a great opportunity to use skills like oscillation and clinical diagnosis which we'd had some, but limited, experience of.
Another common presentation was wounds. I was really shocked when an 18 year old presented with a 10 inch abdomen wound caused by a slash with a knife. It had been stitched and was healing well. Another guy came in with a huge gash to his hand but because of the language barrier, we couldn't establish the cause. One of the Dr's asked us if we had any dressing knowledge and I was really chuffed when I was able to advise her on an appropriate dressing to dry out a wet wound. My clinical confidence was really boosted by working so closely alongside other medical professionals - it became clear we all had different strengths and we really leaned on each other.
There were lots of cuts and grazes from falling or fighting and lots of skin problems, like eczema or athletes foot. Some even had scabies. Again, due to the conditions in camp this was difficult to treat holistically because it was untenable for the refugees to thoroughly clean and dry their belongings and themselves on a regular basis. Queues for the showers were often hours long and then the showers themselves were limited to 6 minutes each (including taking clothes off and putting them back on again!) and it was obvious that personal hygiene was hard to keep on top of. I thought to myself 'it's bad enough being at a festival for a few days without a hot shower' - but having no choice, feeling unwell and fearing for my safety too? I just couldn't comprehend it.
It was really great being with Gemma because we knew each other's limitations and we bounced off each other for advice (of course, if in doubt, we always escalated to the Dr's!). Just before lunch Gemma said "can you come and look at this?", I looked across and a young boy, was clutching his arm. He stretched both his arms out in front of him, as best he could, so we could compare one to the other. No way was that bone in the right place. It was broken. We got a Dr to confirm our thoughts and Gemma wrote him a referral to the hospital. This young boy was about 15 and he had broken his arm 4 days ago. I'm not a parent (and I don't even know if that makes a difference) but just think about that. A 15 year old boy. Living here.
At lunch time, the caravans were shut and we went across the way to a make-shift restaurant where the food looked and smelled incredible. Since we didn't know what to expect, we came prepared with sandwiches which was fine but I knew I definitely needed to try the food when we came back.
After food, Emma showed us round some of the camp and we got to see Salaam (the medical centre), Jungle books (the school), Marko's (the French school started by an ex-asylum seeker), the welcome tent - where we were told 75 new people a day arrived - and the women and children bus (where they could receive more specialised medical help).
While we were walking back, a fight broke out in front of us. Everyone around just stopped and we stood about 20m away. I was terrified. One guy had a pole with a spike on the end and the other had a broken bottle and they were trying to stab each other. I don't know how it started or how it ended but it was brutal. We stayed where we were for a few moments to make sure it had all finished and no one was hurt, then we went back to the caravans.
The afternoon was more of the same, and then a man presented with a headache and nausea. He looked rough. His friend translated for me and it soon became clear that his trouble had started when he woke up this morning, after drinking 'lots of whiskey' the night before. After ruling out anything else untoward, I explained to him that he essentially had a hangover and I reassured him; "we've all been there my friend". He was given some paracetamol and sent back to his tent with instructions to sleep and drink plenty of water. Those who understood the situation, including the patient and his friend, found it very funny!
The language barrier was a challenge and although there were translators around, they were busy with the doctors in the morning so we muddled through. It was really nice to see that a lot of the time, if a patient needed a translator, another patient would step up and help. It didn't matter where they were from, everyone was willing to help everyone else. As a last resort, there were some translations written on the side of the caravan and although it was limited, it did come in handy.
I was overwhelmed with the sheer mass of people and felt completely out of my depth on more than one occasion. The volunteers who were Doctors were great. Whenever we were unsure, they had no trouble helping us out or giving us advice, or even dropping everything to come and check the patients themselves. At one point, I was in a different caravan (there were three of us in there) and it was boiling. I nearly fainted and the Doctor spotted me and got me outside. One of the refugee translators - Musharraf - kept bringing me water and made sure I was OK before I went back in. I took half-an-hour out from seeing patients to get myself together and used the time to sort out the pile of wound care kit that was spread over the seats of the caravan. Once it was all clear, I used the space to start treating patients again.
By the end of the day, we think we must have treated about 50 people each and we were knackered. The caravans were closed and locked. We said goodbye to the translators and we headed out of camp. On the way out, we walked through a large open area of sandy ground where there must have been about 20 guys playing football. It reminded me of stories about the Christmas truce of 1914. Right in front of me, people from different nations, with different backgrounds and cultures, were bought together by their circumstances and regardless of their plight, just wanted to have a kick around. This was the one of the many attempts of "normal" that I would see and I found it incredibly humbling.
At the entrance/exit to the camp, there is a bridge where the A16 runs overhead. The underside of the bridge is covered by a myriad of graffiti which we took a moment to look at. As a massive Banksy fan, I spotted it straight away... "London Calling". Very apt. I took a photo. Banksy art is usually all over social media and I wondered if I should post this one. I thought to myself 'I wonder how many people are going to be angry that I have posted this because they don't want these people in "their country"?'
Next to the Banksy was some writing; "Nobody deserves to live this way!". I had a lump in my throat. In the lead up to our arrival, we had been in a group chat with the other volunteers on camp that week and the Tuesday before we got there, our phones were going crazy with messages. We were getting a live update of an incident that had happened on camp that day. There was a stabbing. The volunteers were desperately trying to get this man to a hospital but the ambulance never came. The volunteers had no choice but to get him to the hospital themselves but despite their best efforts, we heard a few days later that he had died. That man was killed under this sign. Another poetic injustice that will stay with me forever. I posted both the photos and dared anyone to say a word. Regardless of political persuasion, we are all humans. NOBODY deserves to live this way.
We communicated what was needed in the caravan for the next day over the group chat so the relevant supplies could be collected from the storage containers. There was some talk of a baby sling which we were unsure about, since we hadn't seen any women or babies - generally, families tended to either stay in their tent or live together on the other side of the camp (for safety), and if they needed medical assistance, they could go to the women and children's bus, rather than come to us. I later found out that one of the head volunteers in camp had witnessed a mother try to jump on to the back of a lorry with her baby in her hand. The jump was unsuccessful but both of them, by some miracle, were unscathed. The desperation of these people and the situation in camp can be summed up by this one story. Nothing is harder hitting that a woman who would risk her own life and that of her baby for just a chance at a safer life. I can't help but cry when I think about what this poor lady must have been through for that to be her only choice.
We got back to the hostel (with no near misses in the car!), freshened up and went to the sea side for an ice cream. Later on we grabbed a curry and crawled into bed for some sleep.
Read part one here or read part three later this week.