Kneeling in the dust with my patient’s foot propped on my lap was my first experience of First Aiding in Calais. I was cleaning and dressing the wound of a refugee who had been injured falling off a truck.
I got my first aid qualification during my professional scuba diving training which I recently completed in Mexico. I was living the diver’s dream in the Caribbean before COVID-19 sent me home. With no work as a diver or my other job as a church organist in London, I returned to France where I’ve volunteered several times before.
The simple medical kit that comes with us when we visit the temporary camp areas in Calais and Dunkirk contains a basic selection of plasters, bandages, antiseptic and sanitizing creams. I’m volunteering with Care4Calais - an aid charity that operates in northern France. It was the only charity operating here for a while, as other organisations stopped work when Covid19 hit France. Mainly we distribute food, clothing, tents and sleeping bags, and in normal times we’re usually joined by another organisation - First Aid Support Team. However, these qualified medics are not here at present: my fellow first-aider, who is a furloughed land mine-clearer, and I are the best we’ve got for the moment.
As we were setting up the portable handwash station and a generator for phone charging, a man approached me with his hood up and his hand on his face. He’d just seen me giving a plaster to a little boy who had a cut on his foot. “Doctor?” he asked. I showed him the sign we have in Kurdish which says: I’m not a doctor, just a first aider. He took the hand away from his face and I could see how swollen his cheek was: he had an awful tooth infection. “Ouch! That’s very bad.” All I could do was give him printed directions to the hospital clinic which wouldn’t be open until the next day, and a mask to wear while he was there. I can’t imagine how long that night felt as he tried to sleep through the pain.
Later the same week, my friend talked to a guy with sore feet. He took his shoes off and showed her quite a bad case of athlete’s foot. It’s not surprising that he had this fungal infection, as it’s difficult to keep clean when you’re living in a tent which is subject to clearance by the police at a moment’s notice. He was wearing his shoes without socks. My friend spent a long time with him, cleaning his feet and chatting. The Google translate app meant that they could communicate, and she could wish him a happy Eid. The personal level of care she could provide to him was a special moment of service - she could give him her full attention and tend to him in what is by necessity a tactile way, which is so rare at the moment. This was important for her too, as she is unable to perform her usual job but this way could still feel a commitment to a humanitarian cause during this time.
It was a difficult decision for both of us to travel to France. The risk to ourselves of contracting the virus whilst away from home, as well as being away from family that may need help, and the personal financial cost to volunteer, preyed on our minds beforehand.
Working here in France has many challenges. So far, Covid19 has not been obvious in the informal camps, but if it arrives, the inability to keep social distancing rules or wash frequently could lead to a rapid spread.Communicating whilst wearing extensive PPE is difficult enough with fellow volunteers, and even more challenging when there’s a language barrier too. But the small amount of comfort we are able to provide by sitting with someone, giving them our full attention, listening to their problem and trying to find a solution, provides a connection that many people during this time are unable to have.
Being able to share this work with other volunteers of different ages and backgrounds is a reward too. I am so grateful to all the health professionals who are working hard in such extreme situations in hospitals and elsewhere, and I’m humbled to be able to use my training in this small way.