A group of EMT students with the San Francisco Paramedic Association (SFPA) recently gained valuable real-life experience while volunteering at the Occupy San Francisco camp.
The project, called Occupy CARE (Camp Aid and Relief by EMTs), was created after EMT student Ana Cuevas was approached during our Saturday lunch break from class by a member of the Occupy camp. After being asked about how to help someone with hypothermia, she learned that many of the 300-plus campers at Occupy SF were suffering from illness and minor injuries and needed first aid and basic care. Ana recognized that her classmates, including myself, could assist the Occupy SF campers with basic things like foot health and wound care, as well as practicing skills such as taking vital signs and performing patient assessments. She decided to put things in motion.
The following day Ana and I met, along with our fellow student Peter Kressy, to discuss the anticipated level of involvement and visit the camp. What we saw was an apparently haphazard encampment with random bits of organization. The large numbers of close-quartered tents seemed to house both transient wanderers and permanent campers. As we walked to the white “medical tent” at the far corner of the camp we saw everything from barefoot and shivering teenagers to a man riding his stationary bike for exercise.
From a public health standpoint the camp presented many challenges. According to the Occupy campers, the portable toilets provided were regularly unusable due to inconsistent cleaning, and the one hand-washing station often ran out of water by midmorning. The recent wet weather and cold temperatures had left both people and bedding saturated, and there were pools of standing water in the lower areas of camp. We began to think about ways to address the broader public health needs of the camp with things like hand-sanitizing stations and education on illness prevention.
Initially, our hope was to establish a relationship with the members of the camp who were staffing the existing medical tent and offer our assistance. The tent had been set up and organized by a registered EMT named Carl Berger (who we later learned is an SFPA EMT program graduate), however the bulk of the responsibility for the medical needs of the camp had been recently handled by an exhausted volunteer, Jordan Kanchanda, while Carl and some other “medics” were temporarily out of town. Jordan’s relief was evident as we offered our services and support.
As we explored the existing tent and medical area, it became clear we had our work cut out for us. The tent was dirty, unorganized and being used as a sleeping area for an Occupy camper with a chronic medical condition. The tent, measuring 10 feet by 10 feet, housed not only the donated medical supplies–mostly first-aid items, such as gauze and bandages–but a variety of miscellaneous items like extra water, clothing, spare backpacks and tents. Our immediate priorities became setting up a separate supply tent, creating a clean and private space for patient interactions, and developing a system for documentation and record keeping to better understand the needs of the camp.
Monday afternoon we returned, committed to establishing a safe and clean space to begin helping people. Initially we had concerns that the arrival of a group of people in uniform might be met with suspicion from the Occupy campers, however we could not have been more wrong. The steady stream of campers seeking care and advice from the medical tent continued. We acquired and set up a second tent to be used as a supply depot for donated medical supplies, and in between treating patients we managed to create a sense of order and a clean and well-supplied area in which to work. Any dangerous items, such as prescription medications, medications with potential for abuse or overdose and needles, were properly disposed of. We established contact with the SFPD officers stationed at the camp who informed us of their location and regular patrols around the camp. While the mood of the camp seemed relaxed and peaceful, we agreed that volunteers should work in groups and maintain a positive relationship with the SFPD officers at the camp. It was also agreed that female volunteers would help female patients, and that volunteers would work in pairs when helping patients inside the closed tent.