The unsung heroes from Saigon’s medical emergency center

By Le Phuong   April 16, 2018 | 05:00 am PT
The unsung heroes from Saigon’s medical emergency center
Responders work on-site to respond to emergency cases. Photo by VnExpress/Le Phuong
For many first aid practitioners, the unglamorous and arduous line of work rewards them with a meaning to life.

In the small hours of last Saturday morning, a phone call awoke the weary staff at Saigon’s 115 Emergency Center.

A 92-year-old lady with diabetes had been found unconscious in her home, and her family were in urgent need of help.

Without missing a beat, three doctors scrambled to the ambulance outside with defibrillators, electrocardiographs and a case full of medicine. The ambulance screeched into life and was soon on the main road just as dawn broke.

The lady’s home was tucked down a busy alley off Ta Uyen Street in District 5. Upon arrival, the medics darted towards the house, equipment in hand. A quick diagnosis revealed their patient had fallen unconscious due to low blood sugar levels. After a shot of glucose, she regained consciousness and was taken to hospital for further check-ups.

On duty that morning was Vo Van Sam, who said he never gets tired of seeing his patients spring back to life, and that's the reason he's been in the job for almost 10 years. As beads of sweat streamed down his forehead in the midst of sweltering April heat, the physician scurried back to the center with a smile on his face, ready to receive several more emergency cases on his 24-hour shift.

Responders and a driver carry a patient downstairs after he broke his leg. Photo by VnExpress/Le Phuong

Responders and a driver carry a patient downstairs after he broke his leg. Photo by VnExpress/Le Phuong

Like Sam, Tho has grown accustomed to the rainy days, the traffic jams and the endless flights of stairs she has encountered throughout her three years working as a first-aid responder. Her job demands her to be on call all day. As an only child, Tho said her parents worry about how she can live that life instead of landing a stable job in a hospital.

“I used to think I would become a nurse and work in a hospital back after graduating, but one time I had to perform first aid to save a member of my own family, and that's when I found my true calling,” Tho said. 

It means having to deal with frantic phone calls, unexpected rides, the cramped vans and the never-ending sound of sirens howling above her head. Skipping meals to respond to emergency calls is a common occurrence for Tho and her crew.

Of course Tho has had her doubts, after seeing several co-workers leave due to the stressful working environment and low pay. However, for the 24-year-old, it is the satisfaction she feels from pulling patients from death’s door that keeps her in the job.

Looking back at his 10-year journey as a responder, a doctor who wished not to be named condensed his experience down into three words: “Arduous yet worthwhile.” 

After graduating, he was offered a job at a prestigious international clinic, with a salary fit for a king. However, after watching a little girl pass away in his own hands, with him powerless to do anything, his life changed. He left it all behind, and started working for the 115 Center, without payment for the first three years.

“If I'd known how to perform emergency procedures back then, even if I wasn't able to save her, I wouldn’t have regretted as much because I would have tried my very best. Without professional training in emergency care, even general doctors aren't able to save their patients in many cases,” he said. To pursue this path, he's had to give up on fame and fortune, but has no regrets.

Nguyen Duy Long, director of HCMC’s 115 Emergency Center, said 23 employees from the center quit last year, including six doctors and six nurses, accounting for 28 percent of the total number of doctors and 10 percent of the total number of nurses in the center.

The reasons for their departures include low pay, lack of career advancement and an unsafe working environment.

Doctors are calling for changes to the center, including the installation of a technologically-driven coordination system and more paramedic training to meet the city’s demands for first aid responders.

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