Saving lives on Lesbos

Members of Minerva fraternity are volunteers in the refugee crisis

HippocratesSome refugees spend days waiting in the woods, and are then driven into an overloaded boat at gunpoint.

Sarah Venema

While European leaders struggle to cope with the refugee crisis, countless volunteers are flying to Lesbos to help out. Mare visited student fraternity Minerva’s dispuut ("debating society") for medical students, who are manning a makeshift, out-of-hours surgery in what was once a seafood restaurant.

(Het Nederlandstalige origineel staat hier)
Thomas Vellinga (31) leaves his beer and, phone in hand, strides to the other side of the Greek restaurant. It takes some time for the laughter and conversation to subside. "A ship’s been wrecked", he reports, "It’s not a joke."

Several people start to get up but Vellinga motions them to sit down. "Medical staff only", he says as he runs to the exit. "It will mean resuscitation – and it won’t be fun."

It’s a false alarm. The emergency staff who had turned out return, highly relieved.

Vellinga, a member of the Leiden student fraternity Minerva and two of his fellow dispuut members, Wessel Versteeg (62) and Okker Bijlstra (23), took a course in resuscitation before coming to Lesbos, but haven’t needed to apply that knowledge yet.

He and Bijlstra are on duty in the seafood pub on the beach. Camp beds line one wall of the restaurant, separated by sheets to form makeshift examination rooms. The dining tables on the other side are loaded with medicines and bandages.

Their medical dispuut is named after Hippocrates and accordingly, its members have been visiting his birthplace, the island of Kos, for years. But then a Greek doctor mentioned the refugee crisis on the islands to an old member. It didn’t take long for the club to host its first Lesbos drinks party: twenty cents extra for a beer. Meanwhile, the third batch of Minerva members have arrived at the makeshift surgery to help out the Dutch Boat Refugee Foundation.

"The people we see are mainly suffering from an emotional collapse", explains Vellinga. "So we check whether it is just a collapse or a heart attack." "In most cases, a little reassurance and a paracetamol to relieve the pain go a long way", adds Bijlstra. No boats have been spotted today. "It’s not as bad as I expected, but it could get worse at any time", says Vellinga.

A boy wearing a T-shirt depicting a crucifix walks past the restaurant. The lettering on the van where he cooks soup for the refugees reads: "No to drugs, yes to life." "He used to be a drugs addict but he discovered God", explains Bijlstra, watching the passers-by from the café’s terrace. A van with a sticker reading "Team Humanity", a.k.a. "Team Insanity", thunders past. Even when the van is full of refugees, the muscular Danish migrants don’t bother to slow down. Once, their car caught fire because the engine overheated. Other passers-by include a medical team from Israel, Norwegians in hi-viz jackets, Greek ambulance staff who want to use the loo and an American with "lifeguard" scrolled across his back.

"I’ve never been interested in volunteer work", remarks Bijlstra. "But I could get some medical experience here and I feel useful." Vellinga has a similar view. "I’m working on my doctoral research and haven’t seen a patient in three years", he says. "It’s a great adventure too. Other people from Leiden were going as well, so I wouldn’t end up on my own in the jungle."

There have not been this many people fleeing since the Second World War; this year, around 400 thousand refugees have arrived on Lesbos alone. While the European leaders bicker about quotas and local refugee camps, volunteers are flying in from all over the globe. "They sprang into action before the politicians", says Bijlstra. "Impressive."

A refugee boat is sighted heading towards Lesbos and the beach starts to fill up: volunteers in hi-viz wave to the refugees. The Team Humanity guys run into the sea and lift the children out of the boat while other jacketed volunteers hand out thermal blankets and bananas.

A plump kid is carried onto the beach. He points to his stomach. The Boat Refugee Foundation doctor, Manuel van der Krans, lifts boy’s sweater and shirt and carefully undoes the wad of bandages. A long scar, surrounded by smaller wounds, runs across the boy’s abdomen. A man points to the boy’s back, which is also injured. A fellow traveller translates for them: "Operated twelve days ago. I think it’s a gunshot wound."

Van der Krans administers some antibiotic cream to the wounds; behind him, a woman gives a volunteer a kiss and next to them, a boy takes a picture of his friend – in socks. Their shoes are soaking wet. The boy with the gunshot wound is carried to Vellinga and Bijlstra’s surgery. The soup from the "No to drugs" campervan is ready to serve.

"The refugees love it", says Vellinga. "They’re really pampered here; they get hugs, bananas, caps; a hug volunteer wraps blankets around them. Actually, the blankets only work on bare skin so the effect is more psychological than anything else. And what about the hugs? They’re on the move: what are they going to do with a hug?"

We turn onto the dirt track, a muddy road following Lesbos’s north coast that provides a high and useful vantage point. From this height, the boats look like large orange spots – it’s the life jackets. Life jackets are also dotted about in the trees and piled up on the beach. Some are just plastic, featuring pink Disney princesses. Most of them lack any neck support. "If a refugee falls overboard, his lifejacket won’t keep him afloat", Bijlstra observes.

Only the day before, a boat broke in half in the Turkish part of the Aegean. Even though Greek, Spanish and Dutch rescuers were in the water, four children died and another two died following another shipwreck the same night.

Once, a man of about fifty arrived with his wife and four children, recalls Bijlstra, driving past half-sunk boats. The wife and the children were fine, but the man collapsed as soon as he reached the beach. Everyone started yelling and Bijlstra went over to him.

He recovered quite quickly, but he just sat on a wall crying for ten minutes. "I can understand children crying", says Bijlstra. "But it gets to you when a grown man cries. Eventually, a volunteer gave him a hug and he felt better."

So the hugs are important? "Yes, they really are."

Feels good to make a difference

Medical student Casper Quispel (24) arrived in late October with the first team.

"We had no idea what we were expected to do. When we got here, we patrolled in cars, looking for boats. When they arrived, we had to quickly assess who need help. Most people were suffering from hypothermia, had fainted or were stressed by the fuss.

"Sometimes, it really got to me. Once we saw a boat in the distance, but later we only saw orange lifejackets, with way too much space between the specks. It emerged that a ship carrying 250 passengers had capsized. We set up a trauma team and prepared ten cots with resuscitation gear.

"When the refugees reached the harbour, I heard someone shout ‘We need a doc on board!’ so there I was, moving among people suffering from hypothermia and unconscious and dead people in the cabin. There was a baby that had stopped breathing. The captain said it had been breathing until very recently. We tried to resuscitate it for an hour and a half. We had to resuscitate another six children that evening and all day long, corpses washed ashore.

"Luckily, we managed to save the children. Although we don’t know how they’re faring now, it feels good to have made a difference. It makes you happy just to put a smile on someone’s face, or give them a blanket or some attention. There are ambulances on Lesbos, but no staff for them. In the end, taxi drivers broke in and stole the ambulances to take the children to hospital.

"It feels weird: a six-hour flight and you’re home again. I really needed to adjust but I’m used to it now. I’m doing my clinical placement at Leiden University Medical Centre: I’m learning again instead of taking immediate action."


Thrown in at the deep end

Tim Gralike (25) joined the second team and flew to Lesbos before his clinical placements started.

"Most refugees have travelled a long way; they’ve been exploited by Turkish smugglers, having paid between 1,500 and 4,000 Euros per person. They’ve lost everything they own. Some spent days waiting in the woods and were driven into an overloaded boat at gunpoint.

"We gave them first aid in an army tent with no power, but we had bandages, water and antibiotics. We also had a children’s corner with nappies, milk and baby food. We decided on the spot whether we could treat them, to give them preferential treatment by sending them by bus to one of the two large camps or to send them to hospital.

"I saw so many things: sprained ankles, old wounds, people with kidney disorders desperately needing dialysis, pregnant women, panicking because they couldn’t feel their babies move. We had a simple device that allowed them to listen to the baby’s heartbeat – that reassured them.

"Sometimes, there was nothing we could do. A sixteen-year-old boy had a Taliban bullet in his back. That kind of surgery needs to be done in a hospital. On our second day, a boat capsized. A man came to us with a broken leg. He had tried, for three quarters of an hour, to keep his two children out of the water. The children hadn’t survived; he had.

"I was thrown in at the deep end. You learn a lot about how to save lives with very basic means. At first, when I got home, my thoughts were still in Lesbos but after a few days I got used to my everyday life again. The best part was people’s reactions when we met them off the boat with a smile or a hug. It’s so important to show them a little love, to give them some more hope."


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