An Exclusive Look At The Volunteers Treating The Injured At Venezuela’s Protests
Medical Students Brave Government Repression and Tear Gas to Heal the Wounded
Each day, for the past several months, 22 year-old Daniella Liendo wakes up early in the morning.
“I set my alarm a thousand times,” she jokes.
She gets ready then waits for members of her team to arrive. They go over their assignments for the day, form into groups, and prepare their gear. Helmets are distributed for safety; white, with a green cross in the front, by now well renown among the demonstrators on the streets of Venezuela. The groups then head to their respective stations near protests sites around Caracas. They will not be there to protest, however.
Ms. Liendo heads Primeros Auxilios UCV, more popularly known as Green Cross or the Green Helmets. They are a group of medical students and doctors volunteering on the front lines of the protests in Venezuela, assisting victims wounded in the throes of the chaos.
Primeros Auxilios was originally founded in 2014, during a similar bout of protests in Venezuela. It was created by a group of medical students from Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV) — where Liendo herself attends — who decided to use their skills to assist the injured on the front lines. When those protests died down, the students also went back to their normal duties.
When protests again began to foment this year, however, Ms. Liendo and Federica Davila, another medical student at UCV, decided they must reactivate the organization to again carry out the same purpose. Their first day back on the streets was on April 4th, and they have not stopped since. The Green Helmets now have 200 volunteers on board: 120 are medical students from various schools in Venezuela, and the rest are specialists in different types of medicine.
Ms. Liendo stresses that the Green Helmets’ actions are not an act of protest. They remain neutral, and coordinate with both protest leaders and police to in order to facilitate their work.
“This conflict affects everyone, even police,” says Ms. Liendo.
What motivates the volunteers is their sense of duty to their vocation of healing the sick and injured.
On any given day, volunteers encounter individuals with a variety of injuries. The most common injuries, according to Ms. Liendo, are those related to the government’s use of tear gas to disperse protests. Tear gas is used often for this purpose and has a variety of observed side effects. Ms. Liendo reports cases can be as mild as someone simply feeling sick; however, they have also had more serious cases of asphyxiation and, in at least one case, respiratory arrest. There have also been patients with severe wounds caused by the police’s firing of tear gas canisters directly, in a horizontal direction, into crowds, as well as from burns from the canisters themselves.
Other injuries include contusions, puncture wounds, and fractures. More severe cases have also been observed. Government forces have begun firing metal marbles (called metras) at protesters, which have caused serious wounds to protesters’ extremities. There have also been cases of gunshot wounds in protests outside of Caracas, though it is not possible for volunteers to confirm who the shooters were.
In order to most effectively treat the injured, volunteers typically organize themselves into three groups. One team is closest to the front lines of the protest sites, treating immediate injuries; another team acts as a triage unit; while a third team, stationed further away and consisting mostly of specialists, treats the more serious injuries. Ms. Liendo says volunteers are taught to prioritize the safety of themselves and their team first. Still, her colleagues must often brave jostling crowds, tear gas canisters, and even molotov cocktails in order to treat their patients.
Another major difficulty volunteers face is Venezuela’s crippling lack of medicines and medical supplies. The country’s economic collapse has caused a shortage of about 80% of needed medical supplies nationwide. The government has also made a habit of blocking or seizing donations of first aid kits and other supplies, branding them as “war material.”
Among the long list of needed supplies, Ms. Davila lists such basics as gauze, tourniquets, and even baking soda, as well medicines including lidocaine, ciprofloxacin, insulin, and many others. The organization has set up channels for acquiring medications, with the help of Venezuelans living outside the country. Individuals either send medications from abroad or bring them into the country themselves. Such channels also present their own difficulties, with customs officials often seizing goods.
Despite these difficulties, Ms. Liendo says Primeros Auxilios UCV remains committed to their work:
“Health has no color. We have a responsibility to ensure the human right that is the right to life, and we will continue to do this.”
To help Primeros Auxilios UCV:
For international donations, contact Stephanie Plaza +584141538002
For national donations, contact Barbara D’Uva +584147950345
Collection center: church the Guadalupe de las Mercedes
Special thanks to Isabel Berdeja for assistance with this article as well as to photojournalists Gustavo Vera (IG: @gustavoavfc) and Andrea Hernandez (IG: @andrernandez), who are capturing images of the protests on the front lines.
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