16 May 18 05 Jul 18

'A point of hope in their traumatic journey': A Canadian nurse aboard an MSF search-and-rescue ship

By Paulina Cias

Two months ago, Dominika Wanczyk found herself providing comfort to a young girl from Ivory Coast who had recently been rescued from a sinking vessel in the Mediterranean Sea. Wanczyk, a nurse from Calgary, was part of a Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) medical team working onboard a search-and-rescue vessel that had pulled the girl to safety.

“She had burns on her legs,” recalls Wanczyk. “She told me that while she being held in Libya, her captors had attempted to sexually assault her. When she resisted their attempts, they poured scalding hot water on her legs.”

The severity of the girl’s injuries meant that she needed to be monitored overnight. While keeping her company, Wanczyk spoke to the girl about the care she would receive in Italy, where MSF brings those who are rescued at sea. Given the traumas that the girl had so recently endured, Wanczyk was surprised to hear that her most immediate concern was whether she would find bananas, one of her favourite foods, in Italy.

Canadian nurse Dominika Wanczyk tends to a patient aboard the search and rescue vessel Aquarius. In 2017 alone, 15,078 people were rescued in the Mediterranean.

“She was just a child,” said Wanczyk. “She didn’t know what to expect.” The girl was only nine years old, and although she had already experienced so much in her long journey from Ivory Coast, she was worried about starting a new life and was missing the comforts of home. Wanczyk spent the rest of the night speaking with her and listing all of the food that awaited her in Italy, hoping to serve as a point of reassurance prior to the young girl’s disembarkment. “She had a courageous spirit about her,” recalls Wanczyk. “She was resilient and hopeful for what the future would hold for her.”

Last year, MSF teams helped rescue 23,159 people on the dangerous maritime crossing from North Africa to Italy. Many people who undertake the journey in search of a better life in Europe do so at the mercy of the Libyan gangs who control the people-smuggling networks on the Mediterranean Sea. The crossing usually involves overcrowded vessels not fit for the journey. In 2017, 1,142 people died at sea while trying to reach Europe's shores.

Hands-on medical care

Wanczyk worked aboard the Aquarius, a search-and-rescue vessel operated by MSF and SOS Mediterranée. As a nurse, her role was to provide critical medical care to rescued migrants. After a rescue, Wanczyk and the medical team started working immediately to stabilize emergency medical cases. Once stabilized, non-emergency medical cases were consulted on the deck or in the onboard clinic. Wanczyk would treat patients for a variety of cases, including respiratory tract infections, skin diseases and generalized body pain.

Wanczyk was surprised to be treating cases of fuel burns, a common health concern among patients onboard. These burns occur from prolonged exposure to a mixture of salt water and fuel. "They are severe burns," says Wanczyk. "People are sitting in these fuel leaks for long periods of time." Wanczyk would wash the burns with soap and water, and apply a dressing afterwards. 

Dominika Wanczyk talks with a rescued migrant after an operation that pulled 99 people out of a sinking boat.

Critical rescue

With a medical team consisting of two nurses, a midwife and a doctor, and no way to anticipate how many people will be in need of rescue, it was imperative that everyone onboard could contribute. Last January, the team carried out a critical rescue of 99 people. After receiving notification of a vessel in distress, the Aquarius arrived to a chaotic scene with multiple people already in the water. Having inhaled fuel leaking from their boat, many migrants were confused and disoriented, adding to the already tense situation.

Everyone onboard the Aquarius worked quickly to distribute flotation devices, pull people out of the water and administer CPR. "It was our communications officer, a logistician and a journalist running resuscitations," says Wanczyk. "Everyone pulled together and did everything that they could."

In total, nine people were pulled out of the water without vital signs. Of those nine, seven were successfully resuscitated, six of whom were children. "All the children were awake and alert prior to being medically evacuated by an Italian navy helicopter," recalls Wanczyk. "In my medical career, I have never seen anything like this. It was miraculous."

An ongoing emergency

Reflecting on her time onboard the Aquarius, Wanczyk felt privileged to provide hands-on care and bear witness to people's stories. "It was an honour to be a point of hope in their traumatic journey," says Wanczyk. "I was so proud of our crew and team for making an effort to make everyone feel safe and to look after them, even in small gestures of kindness."

While not a solution to the ongoing situation in the Mediterranean, MSF's search-and-rescue operations serve to alleviate the number of deaths at sea, to provide critical medical care to migrants and to, at times, serve as a point of hope and reassurance in people’s journeys. However, until safe and legal migration alternatives are provided, hundreds of thousands of people will continue to make the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean.

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