x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Emergencies are what they know best

Dedicated to saving lives, this group of pioneering young men and women may also change lives as role models for other Emiratis looking for a career in emergency care. On the eve of their graduation ceremony this month, Laura Collins joins the trainee paramedics as they get ready to ride the streets of Abu Dhabi.

Sanet Meyer, a paramedic instructor with the Higher Colleges of Technology, gives the students some guidance. Sammy Dallal / The National
Sanet Meyer, a paramedic instructor with the Higher Colleges of Technology, gives the students some guidance. Sammy Dallal / The National

To those who call on them, they may prove lifesavers; to those simply inspired by their example, they could prove life-changing.

They are the most highly qualified intensive-care paramedics trained and working in Abu Dhabi. They ride in rapid-response vehicles boasting the best equipment in the UAE.

There are 15 of them, ranging in age from 22 to 25, and they are the first class of Emiratis to have been trained, qualified and now to be working full-time in the capital.

The paramedic instructor Sanet Meyer, 39, has overseen their training at Abu Dhabi's Higher Colleges of Technology since the students enrolled four years ago. Each recruit underwent a year's foundation course followed by a three-year degree course, earning them a bachelor of paramedic science.

It has been a challenging process but now, Sanet says: "They have all the skills, the equipment, the drugs … of course, it is a learning curve for them and you don't stop learning the day you graduate.

"It is a new beginning for them and for the students who we hope will follow in their footsteps. These young people can lead by example."

A shortage of paramedics is felt universally. The average career span for these emergency specialists is just seven years as many leave the profession due to the stress.

But the significance of these newly qualified medics goes beyond the practical service they provide on the streets of Abu Dhabi. They matter not simply because they are trained in life-saving techniques; they also matter because they are Emiratis.

The training programme from which they are the first to benefit is sponsored by and run in conjunction with Abu Dhabi Police. The students are employed by the force and on basic pay during their studies, which the force also funds.

On graduation the paramedics were promoted to lieutenant grade. In five to 10 years, it is hoped that about 40 Emirati students will qualify as paramedics in this way each year.

Another batch of 13 have just completed training to a higher diploma level and are about to embark on their final year of training, which should see them qualify with a bachelor of paramedic sciences next year.

Emiratis are under-represented in the medical profession. About 4 per cent of nurses are Emirati and fewer than 10 per cent of doctors are nationals.

The new graduates are actively involved in spreading awareness of the programme and the career possibilities on offer. It is a dynamic of which each graduate seems conscious and quietly proud. At the college's career fair last April, their presence encouraged 27 future students to sign up to the course.

Speaking at the time, Nathan Puckeridge, the paramedic faculty coordinator in the college's health sciences division, noted: "The problem is finding the right people. Even after these students graduate there will still be a huge gap."

There are already Emiratis trained and employed as paramedics in Dubai but one of the problems he identified when it comes to rolling out any sort of comprehensive training programme, is that each emirate has its own training and regulations.

Mahmad Al Balaishi, 22, graduated top of the Abu Dhabi class when the students were awarded their degrees at the end of last year.

The way Mahmad sees it: "Being a paramedic means helping the community. It isn't just about helping after an accident. It is about education and prevention too, raising awareness.

"So far, what I have learnt has helped me and my family, too. We don't have enough medical awareness here but this is changing and it is good."

Certainly his and his classmates' achievements are made all the more impressive by the fact that, four years ago, the vast majority of them could not have told you what a paramedic does.

Hassan Al Shehni, 23, is typical of the group in his admission.

"At the beginning, when we heard about the paramedic programme I knew it was something in the medical field but we didn't know much more than this," Hassan says.

Fellow student Akram Al Hasani, 23, thought the role would involve little more than basic first aid, but that was enough of an incentive to find out more when he first learnt about the course as a high school student after a visit from Abu Dhabi Police to his school.

"Everybody here knows somebody who is involved in an accident," Akram says. "Many of my friends and family, too, have been involved in road accidents. I wanted to study to help.

"There are too many deaths on the road in my country and we are part of the strategy to reduce deaths from accidents. If you get there in time and you know what to do, you can save somebody's life."

Ruqaya Al Harithi, 25, is one of four women to have qualified and her gender adds another layer of significance to her achievement.

Ruqaya, who met and married fellow student Hassan during the course, says: "I had my family for support, especially my father, who suggested I do this.

"I think it's very important in the UAE to have female paramedics. Some husbands don't like their wives to be touched by another man, especially if they are pregnant. Doing this course was a really great experience."

The weekly training consisted of two days of practical learning, either in hospital wards or the impressive labs at the Higher Colleges of Technology. There they learnt and practised life-saving protocols on SimMan and SimBaby - advanced versions of the resuscitation dolls familiar to most from basic first-aid and CPR training.

These rather creepy mannequins can talk, make vomiting sounds, breathe and, if treatment isn't up to scratch, they can die on you, as the students learnt many times over. Using a computer programme called Mega Codes, the Sim-patient's medical history and fate is set to run and record responses to treatment in real time.

The students also practised putting IV lines in each other, "to experience how painful it is", Ruqaya says.

The rest of the week was spent in the comparatively pain-free environment of the classroom.

The students are qualified to administer 43 drugs, as well as needle and surgical procedures for when a patient's airways are too blocked or damaged to respond to other techniques.

With trauma-based incidents accounting for 50 per cent of the emergency call-outs they are likely to receive - a higher percentage than figures in central Europe - these Abu Dhabi paramedics are more likely to be called on to use such techniques than their international peers.

The rapid-response vehicles in which they travel are the first dispatched to the scene of any incident, travelling in advance of Abu Dhabi Police's ambulances into which the paramedic may transfer if continued care is required.

The students spent five weeks of each summer on clinical placement at Al Rahba Hospital, Mafraq Hospital or Sheikh Khalifa Medical City emergency departments and operating theatres.

"We spent more time studying or in the labs and hospitals than we did at home," says Hassan.

The final section of the training saw the students travel to the Northern Territories in Australia - the international curriculum they followed was the Australian standard - to a placement with St John's Ambulance service in Darwin.

It was, all agree, a remarkable experience, professionally and personally, throwing them into a vastly different landscape culturally and geographically.

"We bonded, all of us, especially the girls," Ruqaya says.

Fresh out of college, the day-to-day realities are daunting for even the most competent of students.

As Sanet points out: "They are the first on the scene. They have their equipment, their training, their drugs and they have a medical director at Abu Dhabi Police for support, but that doctor is not on duty 24/7.

"They can call Mafraq and Sheikh Khalifa emergency departments for support if they need to, but the key in it all is the rapid response and every day they are facing new challenges."

The paramedic Ahmed Al Hammadi, 23, says: "Of course we should be nervous when we go out on a call. We will keep learning.

"It is not an office job, the routine is not the same as some of my friends' jobs. Some days it might be quiet, some days it might be dangerous and difficult. You cannot know. We have to be ready all the time but it is a good job and full of action."

The students have now been split between the ambulance and civil defence stations at Al Bateen, Mohammed bin Zayed City and Shahama.

All of the graduate paramedics of the Abu Dhabi region have management roles and responsibilities to manage the shifts of these stations. They provide guidance and support to the existing, and less qualified, emergency medical services personnel during their 12-hour shifts.

According to the service's official spokesman: "The advanced life-support paramedics responding to calls in their allocated regions has had a major impact on serving the community.

"Survival rate has increased and the paramedics are ensuring that patients are completely stabilised and pain-free for transportation to appropriate trauma units/hospitals."

lcollins@thenational.ae