“I love to sing and dance with women and children. These are beautiful moments. For an instant, the trauma that inhabits them gives way to joy.”
Blessing is part of MSF´s medical team on board. As a midwife she is taking care of the rescued women, girls and young children.
What sort of conditions are the women and children in when arrive onboard the Ocean Viking?
When they first arrive on board, the women are often stressed, weak, and hypothermic – and of course afraid, having been at sea for such a long time. Many are suffering from seasickness. Some may pass out from exhaustion when they step onto the boat. Others have significant burns due to their skin having being exposed to fuel for an extended period. We also regularly encounter pregnant women, at all stages of pregnancy. Sometimes they have been at sea for several days and are in a bad health, which may present a risk of premature delivery. These women are often anemic.
In general, children do not present cases of serious illness, with our treat mainly focusing on skin infections or other ailments caused by living in cramped conditions without access to proper sanitation or health care.
How do you take care of them onboard? Both medically, and from a humanitarian perspective? How do you help them feel safe and comfortable?
During the rescue operations at sea, one Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) medic is on board one of the SOS MEDITERRANEE fast rescue boats for the first approach. He or she is responsible for transmitting, via radio, initial indications regarding the health status of men, women and children to the awaiting medical team aboard the Ocean Viking. This allows us to prepare the materials necessary to welcome them upon arrival, such as survival blankets and adapted first reception kits. When they arrive, we lead the women and children to their shelter, which is separate from the men’s shelter. We make an initial health assessment in order to identify potential cases that may require immediate medical attention. Women and children who have been exposed to fuel are immediately taken to shower and changed out of wet or gasoline-soaked clothes. If necessary, they can also be brought into our clinic for emergency consultation and treatment.
Within the next few hours, I will give a welcome message, during which I explain who we are, what they can expect from us as MSF onboard, as well as some of the basic rules we have to keep everybody safe and well during our time with us on the ship. Later, at a suitable moment, we also address the subject of sexual violence and possible treatment available if this is something that they have been exposed to. During their journey and time in Libya, this is something many of the women have been impacted by. We explain what we can offer medically and describe the options available in terms of follow-up.
We also organize individual consultations, during which we assess the health status of each woman and child in more detail, and whereby we offer psychological first aid. It is very important to reassure them, and to offer a place where they can feel peace and security -both for themselves and for their children. We also have everything needed for children of all ages: disposable diapers, baby milk, etc. As well as games, drawing materials, musical instruments. I love to sing and dance with women and children. These are beautiful moments. For an instant, the trauma that inhabits them gives way to joy.
Could you say a little bit about the state of the rescued women’s reproductive health? What can MSF onboard offer to support them?
I do prenatal consultations for pregnant women. I check their red blood cell count in particular. Often the pregnant women arriving on board the Ocean Viking are anemic. When the anemia is moderate, I put them under treatment while waiting for their disembarkation in a safe place -but if the anemia is severe, we might ask for a medical evacuation, because this could put them or their baby at risk of complications. We also offer systematic treatment to women who have been exposed to sexual violence on their journey or during their time in Libya. When these women disembark, as much as possible we refer them to the doctor representing the host country’s health ministry, in order to ensure that their treatment and needs are followed up with care.
Interview: Laurence Bondard, Communication Officer on board the Ocean Viking // February 2020
Photo credits: Anthony Jean / SOS MEDITERRANEE