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Put first-aid first and we'll save a lot of lives

April 20, 2022 | 04:45 pm PT
Nguyen Hanh Journalist
The lack of priority given to teaching and learning first aid in Vietnam overburdens paramedics and doctors in a country that has a very high rate of death by accidents.

Earlier this month, four people drowning in a Vung Tau beach were fortunately saved by a lieutenant with the firefighting and rescue department who was vacationing there with his family.

His CPR skills saved four lives that day.

Imagine what would have happened in his absence. Actually, we do not have to imagine, because it happens all the time.

And to make matters worse, apart from the fact of people dying without timely first aid, there are dominant false beliefs that further endanger lives.

For instance, it is widely believed in the country that a drowned person can be revived by carrying them upside down so that they vomit all the water. Not only is this wrong, it's also dangerous: the stomach content may spill into the lungs instead. And more importantly, it would waste precious time needed to try and resume oxygen circulation; it takes only a few minutes of oxygen deprivation for the brain to be permanently damaged. As such, first-aid measures like CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) could mean the difference between life and death.

However, it would be difficult to find an average Vietnamese citizen with the skills and expertise to perform CPR effectively, especially in a real life situation with little room for error. It is a glaringly obvious shortcoming of our medical system, the fact that the average citizen has virtually zero first-aid skills.

When a patient gets to the hospital, his or her life lies in the hands of doctors and nurses. But before this happens, many need some first-aid, which is something that an average person should have a grasp of. The failure to train the population in basic first-aid, and a shortage of paramedics to provide first-aid would mean forfeiting the lives of so many who could have been saved.

Many countries like the U.S. and EU members have well developed paramedic networks. In the U.S., parademics are usually first at the scene of an accident or any other medical emergency. They are trained to stabilize the patient before he or she is taken to the hospital. While they might not be doctors or nurses, they are well equipped with first-aid skills and tools to save lives. Many may work as volunteers, but they also receive financial support from the government. In many instances, they arrive at the scene using their personal vehicles even before the ambulances arrive.

There are several Southeast Asian countries with similar paramedic teams, like Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines. I once got the chance to interview Nguyen Thanh, director of the 115 Emergency Center of Hanoi, and learned that a decade ago, Vietnamese experts were the ones who traveled to Thailand to provide paramedic training. But now it's the opposite.

Vietnam has a medical network that is on par with certain developed Southeast Asian countries'. But we have no paramedic network that's deployed nationwide.

Hanoi has around 10 million people, but the capital's 115 system has only around 20 ambulances. The WHO estimates that a city like Hanoi would need around 100-150 ambulances. Every day, there are around five emergency calls that cannot be processed due to a lack of ambulances. This is why around 90 percent of people opt to transport their family members to the hospital themselves.

The shortage of paramedics and ambulances is compounded by the lack of first-aid training in the community.

Kindergarten teachers, for example are supposed to be trained in first-aid, but we still get reports of little kids who died after choking on their food or some small objects. Taxi drivers, who are more likely than others to witness traffic accidents or reach the scene first, get no first-aid training.

Vietnam is among the countries with the highest death rates in accidents.

It cannot be denied that even basic first-aid skills can save lives, but many people think it is the job of doctors and nurses, that they have no role to play.

But there are some signs of hope. More and more businesses and organizations are investing in first-aid training. If people stop thinking about first-aid as a special skill set, but as a common skill that serves the good of the community, more lives can be saved. One day, that life might even be yours or mine.

*Nguyen Hanh is a Vietnamese journalist. The opinions expressed are her own

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