The biggest air ambulance challenges are on the ground
One of the essential skill requirements to work in the air ambulance industry is undoubtedly the ability to adapt and operate efficiently regardless of the resources and support available on the ground. Universal Air Evac conducts missions throughout Africa, Europe and the Middle East, presenting unique challenges to its doctors and paramedics. Often female medics face additional hurdles, which range from the practical to the patriarchal.
One of the biggest is the bathroom challenge. “Many of the airports that we stop at to refuel do not cater for the bathroom needs of women,” explains a doctor. “Sometimes a hole in the ground is as good as you're going to get, and we have had to learn to make it work!”
And, while the lack of facilities may be inconvenient, it has real implications in terms of safety. According to another flight doctor, “Safety is always a concern. Living and working in South Africa, we as women have adapted to the paranoia and constant careful behaviours to keep ourselves safe. Our self-preservation instincts are so conditioned that we hardly notice our own adaptations to everyday tasks. During these missions to other countries, those instincts kick in in full force whenever you have to go anywhere alone. Walking through an empty airport looking for a bathroom while your partner looks after the patient, for example, can quickly become scary and the reality of things like human trafficking is always at the back of your mind.”
She explains that security is not just a worry in unfamiliar countries but also back in South Africa. “Coming home after a mission often means driving alone between 00h00 and 04h00. You are dehydrated, hungry and tired after a 20 hour + mission, but terrified of red robots and too scared to stop at a garage for food because you know how vulnerable you are.”
As a female paramedic points out, however, the “highly questionable and sometimes impractical bathrooms” are not the only predicament. She says, “Jokes aside though, many regions in Africa, and also in the aviation industry, are very patriarchal. This sometimes requires us as females to be more assertive than our male counterparts, often to the chagrin of the authorities we face.”
This unfortunate truth was echoed by a crew doctor, “A challenge I face often is having my abilities questioned, as I think a lot of people still associate the title of 'doctor' with males.”
Despite the misconceptions, once a Universal Air Evac team has been seen in action, few can doubt their professionalism, expertise and skill.