Many owe their lives to these specialized ambulance personnel whose quick response has made 108 an indispensable emergency service. Vaibhav Shastry rides with them on a mercy mission

There are no predictable moments for these men. One call from the call centre in Chennai, and a driver and technician take off in a matter of seconds. The van is started and the siren switched on. The exact location is confirmed from the witness who is contacted on the way, as the vehicle wades it’s way through the late evening traffic on the busy streets of Ukkadam to reach Sundarapuram.

The patient, a frail man having difficulty breathing, is carried to the van by the emergency medical technician, who asks him about the symptoms he is experiencing. He lays the man down in a collapsible stretcher, administers first aid and puts him on a saline drip. His body temperature, blood pressure and pulse are checked and noted down as the van moves. The man is then put on a nebuliser and finally admitted to the Coimbatore Medical College and Hospital (CMCH) for further treatment. The case details are recorded in a patient care record (PCR) as soon as the patient is admitted. This takes no more than 20 minutes. This is just a slice of action in the day of the team manning the popular ‘108’ ambulance service in the city.

The good samaritans

Thirty- year-old Deepu Pradeep has been an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) for five years. He has handled a variety of cases in his career. He sits calmly in the front seat with a cheerful expression, even late in the evening, giving D. Jesudass, the pilot (ambulance driver) directions as they make their way to the location. While the pressure of making it on time must have been weighing on his mind, Deepu manages to share a few jokes with Jesudass.

He then verifies the address, case details and contact number from the call centre in Chennai. The distance of 10 kilometres is covered in less than 10 minutes as other vehicles on the road pull up to the side making way for the ambulance to proceed without delay.

The blue and orange striped vehicle has become a familiar sight in the city. The front seat is replete with updated records of each case, and there is a strong smell of disinfectant coming from the cabin where the patients are treated. While they are busy through the day, not all calls made to 108 in a day are genuine emergencies. There are hoax calls and other not so critical cases that the team is forced to respond to.

“Hoax calls are minimal, but we receive many calls to rescue destitute and elderly beggars from the streets, which are not technically emergencies,” Deepu says. Some others are shifted to a nearby hospital through a private vehicle, minutes before the ambulance gets there. But the staff has to take each case seriously.

“We have to treat each call with equal diligence. We never know how critical a case is until we get there, and each minute counts. A majority of calls are genuine, so we have to be at the location as quickly as possible,” he says. Most cases are handled within twenty minutes to half an hour.

In traumatic cases, medical technicians have to still keep calm and administer quick treatment. “Keeping the patient alive and taking him to the hospital is our primary concern, irrespective of what state they are in,” he says.

Deepu quit his job as a medical representative at Cipla in Salem to become a medical technician here, and recently won an award for having handled the best emergency case from GVK EMRI (Emergency Management Research Institute). He handled a total of 264 cases last month, and proudly recalls an instance of timely intervention that saved a youngster’s life. “We got a call from Madhampatti saying a teenaged boy had epileptic fits. On reaching the spot, after administering necessary first aid and recording his vital parameters, I found out he had actually tried to hang himself,” Deepu says.

After many doctors gave him no hope, the boy was taken to the Government hospital where he was eventually revived. He has now completed his graduation and is the sole bread winner for his family.

Not an easy life

Ambulance pilot Jesudass, who has been at the wheel of a 108 ambulance for the last three months doesn’t have an easy life. An ambulance driver doesn’t have a fixed schedule and is not paid too well either. He also has to leave his wife and children behind at Valparai and gets to meet them once in a month.

He works a 24 hour shift on occasions, so he can spend a full day with family. None of these factors affects his work as he swerves through the traffic, driving fast and taking calculated risks on the road. Jesudass talks about the importance of a good understanding with the technician.

“It is very important to have good co-ordination with the medical technician as it is teamwork that saves time in critical situations. We are all trained in basic cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) techniques, and help the technician carry the patient gently onto the stretcher in case they suffer from hip, neck or spinal injuries after an accident,” he says. It is the nobility attached to the profession that drives these men. “The public and policemen treat us with respect as they are all aware of the importance of our service. This gives us more satisfaction than money can,” Jesudass concludes.

The 108 service was started in November 2008 as a not-for-profit professional organization operating in the Public Private Partnership mode.

There are 21 ambulances stationed at high-risk locations in the urban and rural areas of Coimbatore district.

There are 54 ambulance pilots and 46 Emergency Medical Technicians in the city.

The ambulances handle over 2,400 cases each month. In June alone 2,463 cases were handled out of which 689 cases were Road Traffic Accidents, while it was 2,573 cases in May.