Search and rescue: Their bodies tell us about the horrible things they've been through

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14 March 2017

Since early 2017, Heidi Anguria has been working as a nurse on the MV Aquarius search and rescue vessel. The ship is jointly run by MSF and SOS MÉDITERRANÉE, built to patrol the Mediterranean Sea. Every week, Heidi blogs about her experiences on board...

Before I know it, it's Sunday again - it's hard to believe the weeks are passing by so quickly.
 
We’re at sea and nothing interesting is happening. But that’s something you learn to deal with when on board a search and rescue ship – having nothing to do.
 
The quiet doesn't last for long.
 
When Tuesday comes, we once again arrive in the search and rescue zone (SAR, for short).
 
We're kicked out of our beds at 6 am, sharp - a boat is sighted. We prepare ourselves for rescue very quickly.
 
Soon we get information that the Italian coast guard has taken over the rescue. Now ready but with nothing to do, we just ending up having breakfast very early together!
 
Despite the good weather nothing happens for the rest of the day.
 

Our patients

 
On Wednesday it’s on again.
 
We have many new colleagues on board, who are a bit nervous but also highly motivated.
 
In the end we find four boats and take 400 people on board - among them are two children.
 
This time, my job is to ride in the life boat and meet our patients at sea. This is in order to immediately assess the medical state they're in. I really enjoy it!
 

A group of patients relax on board the Aquarius after being rescued. Photo: Heidi Anguria/MSF.

On board, there are a surprising number of people from Bangladesh, which challenges us language-wise. However, we quickly manage to find someone who speaks Bangladeshi and also English, and is happy to translate. 
 
There are some people with horrific gasoline burns. Gasoline mixed with salt water and sunlight causes human skin to burn.
 
That night I’m on call, but I only have to get up once to help a child with a fever.
 
On Thursday after giving out tea and white bread for breakfast, we start our clinic.
 
It’s always difficult explaining why we can’t examine everybody. We see typical diseases like hypothermia, dehydration or skin conditions.
 
There are many patients that show physical symptoms which are caused psychologically by the horrible things they’ve been through. For example there’s this man in front of me whose whole body is hurting.
 
Suddenly he starts crying and tells me about his trip to Libya.
 
His brother was shot in front of his eyes.
 
His brother's killers then hit him for crying. 
 

Patients look out towards the vast Mediterranean Sea. Photo: Heidi Anguria/MSF.

“There’s not much we can do for them besides listen"

 
There is another man who gets a panic attack.
 
He tells us that he hasn’t been able to sleep for weeks. Again and again he has to relive the horrible things he experienced in Libya.
 
Then there is an endless number of women who were raped. Their children who resulted from these rapes will be a lifelong reminder of what happened.
 
There’s not much we can do for them besides listening and informing the authorities on their arrival in Italy so they can receive psychological treatment.
 
On Friday we arrive at Trapani, a port town in the south-west of Sicily.
 
In the morning our guests disembark, and we get hugged a lot and shake hands. A man tells me: “Thank you so, so much, you have saved my life!“ A really emotional moment.
 
In the afternoon we visit the city centre, it’s very clean and beautiful. In the evening we all meet up to go to dinner.
 
On board there’s a nice sense of community and I’m happy to be part of it. It ends up being a fun evening.
 

“Even life-savers need a break sometimes!”

 
On Saturday we depart at 2 pm. The weather isn’t the best.
 
In the evening some guys try to watch a rugby game online, but the bad connection prevents it from working well. Even life-savers need a break sometimes!
 

Staff take a break to watch the rugby. Photo: Heidi Anguria/MSF.

There’s a new coordinator on our team from SOS Méditeranée.
 
Now every morning at the daily weather update, he teaches us some meteorology, which I find really interesting.
 
The forecast doesn’t look good.
 
We aren’t expecting to encounter any boats tomorrow. But we’re still going to the SAR zone.
 
Today the sky is grey, the temperatures are going down and the waves reach from one-and-a-half up to three meters.
 
But our old lady (after all the Aquarius is 40 years old) carves its way through the water. I feel like I’m in safe hands.
 
Even though we don’t expect to encounter boats, it is still a day of work for us. The ship has to get cleaned up.
 
We arrange medical training for three newly arrived journalists. They have to be prepared for an emergency as well, and learn things like how to do cardiac massages or where to look for important tools.
 
Our medical team of four discusses different scenarios like drowning, hypoglycemia and so on, just to be well prepared.
 
Despite the work there is still some time to eat cake with a birthday boy or girl. Our awesome kitchen team bakes a cake every time it’s somebody’s birthday.
 

Heidi on board the Aquarius. Photo: Heidi Anguria/MSF

That’s it for this week. 

A lot of you are reading my entries and even sharing them with others - I'm receiving messages from people I don’t even know!

Thank you everyone for your feedback - your interest in the work I'm doing makes me really happy!

- Heidi.

 

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