'Angels of the Road': Volunteer paramedics patrol streets of Venezuela's capital

A group of volunteer paramedics has stepped into the void to offer life-saving help on the streets of Caracas as Venezuela’s deepening crisis hits emergency ambulance services. Calling themselves Angels of the Road, the volunteer corps relies on donated medical supplies and funding from international organisations. Despite receiving no pay, its roughly 40 paramedics are ready at a moment’s notice to jump on to motorcycles and fire up their single ambulance and race into the streets of the capital.

Jonathan Quantip, 44, said he and co-founder Zuly Rodiz launched the project two years ago after watching their native Venezuela precipitously decline over years of political and social crisis.

Angels on the Road volunteer paramedics move a person suspected of having Covid-19 to hospital in Caracas (Ariana Cubillos/AP)

“We Venezuelans have to solve our own country’s problems,” Mr Quantip said. “We have to use the skills we’re each good at.” The group works on a shoestring budget with nothing left over for wages, so each paramedic relies on another source of income.

Some donate their off-time after working in hospitals and fire stations. Others flip burgers in fast food restaurants. The paramedics say they feed off the adrenaline of each emergency call to a chaotic crash scene or shooting in an underserved barrio.

Simple gestures of gratitude also motivate them, said 21-year-old paramedic Laura Lara.

'Angels of the Road': Volunteer paramedics patrol streets of Venezuela's capitalAngels of the Road volunteer paramedics Laura Lara, from left, Zully Rodiz and Jonathan Quantip, resupply their trauma kit in Caracas (Ariana Cubillos/AP)

“It’s helping people and hearing them say ‘thank you’ after hanging on despite their pain and suffering,” Ms Lara said. “All that emotion is what makes you fall in love with this.” Venezuela was once a wealthy oil nation, but years of political crisis has left it in ruins.

Most residents do not have reliable running water and electricity at home. The crisis has sent more than five million fleeing in a migration rivalling that of war-torn Syria. Venezuela’s hospitals lack basic medicine and trained personnel and there are not enough ambulances in service to meet the needs of its population, said Mr Quantip, adding that no other volunteer paramedic organisations like this exist in Venezuela.

'Angels of the Road': Volunteer paramedics patrol streets of Venezuela's capitalAn Angels of the Road volunteer paramedic on a motorcycle follows the organisation’s single ambulance transporting a patient injured in a road accident (Ariana Cubillos/AP)

Some state services exist, but they are unreliable and often do not have adequate medical supplies, while private companies are more expensive than most Venezuelans can afford.

Angels of the Road staff work in rented office space at a national newspaper that no longer prints a paper edition. They keep a constant ear on walkie-talkie radio traffic and scan online chats dedicated to emergency services. Sometimes, colleagues in the public sector ambulance and fire services need help and call them for backup, they said, noting a recent call from a fire station with a truck that had no fuel.

Ms Rodiz, 38, was trained as an architect and earns a living managing social media websites. She picked up the basics of first aid through courses and learning from others in the street.

'Angels of the Road': Volunteer paramedics patrol streets of Venezuela's capitalVolunteer paramedic Zully Rodiz speaks on the radio as she arrives at a car fire in Caracas (Ariana Cubillos/AP)

Most of their calls involve traffic accidents in Caracas, where general lawlessness means few obey stop signs and signals, Ms Rodiz said. She said they have abandoned any sense of rivalry with public services, including police, fire and ambulances.

Their colleagues in the public sector often lack basic medical supplies such as gloves, so they share what they have, Ms Rodiz said. “The moment comes that they call saying, ‘Look, we need your help’,” she said. “OK, you do it with all the love and care in the world in order to be able to help anybody who opens the door for us.”

Each day brings on average three to four calls, and the coronavirus pandemic means that at least one of those is a request to take a patient with trouble breathing to hospital, putting the volunteers themselves at risk of catching the disease.

'Angels of the Road': Volunteer paramedics patrol streets of Venezuela's capitalZully Rodiz, right, and doctor Brayan Alfaro, of Angels of the Road, check a person suspected of having Covid-19 at his home in Caracas (Ariana Cubillos/AP)

Dr Luis Richard, a surgeon who specialises in trauma care, trained many members of Angels of the Road, calling them “stars”. He said there are simply not enough paramedics to meet the need. Dr Richard, who recently migrated to Costa Rica, said the first responders often mean the difference between life and death.

“Fifty percent of the patients live or die because of their pre-hospital care,” Dr Richard said.

“They’re the ones making the difference.”

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