Venezuela’s paramedics race to save lives amid daunting challenges

By Ron Gonzalez

Caracas, Feb 5 (efe-epa).- A white rescue vehicle speeds across this capital despite heavy afternoon traffic.

Three paramedics inside prepare to provide emergency assistance that could save a person’s life – or several lives – if they get there on time, a race against the clock with Venezuela’s longstanding economic crisis as backdrop.

A few minutes later, they arrive at the site of an accident. A man lies in a ditch on the highway that links Caracas with La Guaira, a coastal state whose beach resorts make it a popular destination for capital residents.

Dozens of people living in a low-income neighborhood bordering the road say the man has been there since being hit by a truck hauling scrap metal and fear the accident was fatal.

“It was the crane. The crane struck him,” a witness said sadly.

But no one aside from the paramedics seems to have a good understanding of what happened or how to proceed.

The members of this brigade of first responders, known as the “Highway Angels,” eventually get the man to respond and quickly move him to an ambulance that transports him to a Caracas hospital, where finally he is able to receive life-saving medical care.

Less than 10 minutes elapsed between the emergency call and the arrival of the paramedics despite the lengthy distance covered. And although life-or-death cases do not occur every day, the speed required of these emergency workers is a fundamental aspect of their daily work.

Kenwin Rincones, a paramedic who drives “La R,” as the brigade’s rescue vehicle is known, told Efe that he and his colleagues experience an adrenaline rush when called into action but not stress or fear.

“I don’t get stressed at all. I feel that in those moments all my senses are activated and it’s when I’m most secure behind the wheel,” Rincones said after carrying out the successful rescue.

As the vehicle’s driver, Rincones says his responsibility is to reach those in need as quickly as possible. Typically, the 35-year-old paramedic must maneuver in and around heavy Caracas traffic while still driving as quickly as possible.

“When you’re securely in control of the vehicle, you know what maneuvers you can do and what your limit is,” he said.

The “Highway Angels” are not the only first responders plying their trade in Caracas, a city that is home to nearly two million people and which also receives tens of thousands of commuters every day.

But despite the presence of several groups, there is always a sense that more support, more equipment and more rescue vehicles are needed, said Ruth Echandia, the division chief of this paramedics brigade.

“Who wouldn’t like to have more vehicles? Of course we need more equipment. We’re now working with basic equipment,” Echandia told Efe.

She said, for example, that the vehicle driven by Rincones is the only one equipped to travel at high-speed thanks to some tweaking carried out at a private garage.

The wear-and-tear on other tools and equipment also could complicate the group’s work.

But the biggest problems arise after the first responders have finished their medical duties and must transport injured individuals to hospitals, many of which lack the professional staff or equipment to treat certain wounds and thus do not accept the patients.

In those cases, the only solution is search around for another hospital that will admit them, a rarely discussed reality of life in that crisis-hit country that is known as “ruleteo.”

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