The nurse Christine spent seven weeks on board the Ocean Viking as head of the medical team for the rescue mission. During this time, the crew rescued hundreds of people from boats in distress. Christine and her team – a doctor, a midwife and another nurse – provided medical care to many of them. Her team was also busy complying with the strict COVID-19 protocols on board. In this interview she recalls her experiences and the challenges related to search-and-rescue operations during a pandemic.
1. It had been your wish for a long time to work on a civilian rescue ship. Why?
I wanted to support people in need again after a long break working in different fields. Until 2007, I had gained experience in numerous MSF projects around the world. Afterwards, I worked in palliative care, which is very fulfilling for me, but I also wanted to get involved politically and socially. Working in sea rescue seems to arouse so much anger and hatred among the population, even though we just give a hand to people fleeing across the Mediterranean so that they do not drown. Saving lives of people in distress at sea is a legal duty, but for me it is also a moral duty.
2. What are the tasks of the medical team during and after a rescue? What care can you provide with your onboard clinic?
Many survivors are deeply exhausted immediately after their rescue, some have inhaled fuel fumes, which can lead to confusion. The longer they have spent in their unseaworthy boat, the greater the risk of dehydration from not drinking enough water, of hypothermia from being wet and cold, or overexposure to the sun. Not to mention the fact that medical care in Libya is inadequate and many people have suffered terrible injuries, both physical and psychological. Many women were raped. Some come on board our rescue ship being pregnant.
Once the survivors are on deck after a rescue, our task is to immediately decide who needs medical help the most urgently. Is it the woman, heavily burdened by rape and who got pregnant from it, or the little boy with insatiable vomiting, or the 18-year-old whose leg has grown together crookedly after an untreated fracture and whose second leg shows scars from torture?
Our clinic is very well equipped and so we can treat acute health problems such as pneumonia, dehydration or infected wounds. We have enough antibiotics and painkillers on board, the most important medicines. The clinic has some beds, so people can also stay overnight for monitoring. And if there is a situation that needs intensive monitoring, we request a medical evacuation. During the two missions I participated in, there were two such situations. Both times it was a woman with a high-risk pregnancy.
3. As soon as survivors are on board, a strict hygiene protocol is prevailing on the ship to prevent possible coronavirus infections from spreading. How does this work with several hundred rescued people on deck?
With more than four hundred people on board, sufficient distance can hardly be maintained. But the survivors wear medical masks and are urged to practice hand hygiene; there is plenty of water and soap. The shelters are open, so they are permanently ventilated, and during the day people are mostly on deck, outside. Crew members wear protective clothing, often with goggles and always with a tight-fitting FFP2 mask. We have enough rapid tests on board and we test people with COVID-19 symptoms.
In the last rescue mission, we happened to detect coronavirus infections on board among the survivors. There is the possibility of isolation, but of course not for a very high number of people affected. After each rescue we immediately request a place of safety – when there are COVID-19 cases on board, this is of course even more urgent.