Rescue boat medic: “The people we save at sea get a second life”

Aug 16, 2016 · 3 min read

by Caroline Haga / IFRC

Seasoned Swiss nurse Nicole Rähle is part of the first Italian Red Cross medical team on board the ship rescue Responder which left Malta to save lives in the Mediterranean last week.

“I believe that the people we save at sea are given a second life. Even though in terms of the whole migration crisis our work may seem like a drop in the ocean, it’s critical for each individual that we rescue,” she says.

“They had not given up hope”

Despite having worked on and off with the Red Cross for 16 years in war zones around the world, this is Nicole’s first time working at sea. Just 24 hours into her departure, she saw the first overcrowded rubber dinghy among the waves.

“’Oh my God’, I thought when I saw how many people were cramped together. No matter how many passengers we helped on that boat, there were still more.

“We rescued 151 people, including 41 women and eight children, who were very exhausted and dehydrated. Some could barely stand up as they had been sitting in the same position for at least eight or nine hours,” recounts Nicole.

“And yet, when they came on board they were able to smile with relief. They had not given up hope.”

The challenges of working at sea

Nicole and her team have already helped rescue more than 400 people in four days together with a specialist search and rescue crew from independent charity Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS). She is one of two nurses in the team who work alongside a doctor.

“The doctor checks on the condition of passengers as they are being rescued, while I count the men, women and children as they board. When the passengers have sat down, we visit each one to check how they are — not just checking for injuries but also general health conditions.”

Working on a boat has its practical challenges such as limited space for treatment, storage of kit and medical supplies, not to mention the living quarters. Yet, despite the long days and nights, Nicole was keen to head out to sea again after the boat returned to Sicily to take rescued people to shore.

Every life is equally important

Although the Responder rescued 448 people last week, Nicole said one person stuck in her mind.

“One pregnant woman seemed to have severe psychological difficulties and when I looked into her eyes I could see that she was scared to death,” she said.

“I imagine it’s very likely she has encountered violence in the near past. But when I held her in my arms she was able to relax and even slept later.

“I believe that every life is equally important regardless of who you are or where you’re from. It is why I do this work.”


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International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.