PARAMEDICS who often risk their lives saving others are increasingly being threatened by members of the very communities they serve.
There have been reports of paramedics being raped, robbed at gunpoint and lured into ambushes by people making hoax calls.
Last month in Masiphumelele, two paramedics were treating a drug overdose patient at the back of an ambulance when five men entered the vehicle and pepper-sprayed them. The male paramedic tried to run for help, but tripped and was kicked and robbed. Five people were arrested, two of whom are out on bail.
Paramedics Michael Sigonyana, 34, and Nolubabalo Ndlovu, 28, who have been paramedics for almost five years, say they love their jobs, but are concerned that the profession has become more dangerous.
They work four days a week – a day and night shift in Khayelitsha and a day and night shift in Strand.
In September last year the pair was attacked while responding to a call in Khayelitsha at night.
The incident where Ndlovu and Sigonyana were attacked at knifepoint by two men occurred at about 1am near Ntlanganiso High School in Site C, Khayelitsha.
“We were dispatched to Site B. It’s not easy to find house numbers there so control gave us instructions to wait near Ntlanganiso High School for an escort to take us to where we needed to be,” said Ndlovu.
Two men approached their ambulance, one carrying a golf club.
“I thought he was just carrying that to protect himself at night. He stood by my window, speaking very low, trying to prompt me to open my window. The other one was doing the same with my colleague on the driver’s side. I didn’t open my window.
“He eventually tried to open the door. The handle just snapped. I screamed,” said Ndlovu.
While Ndlovu was screaming, her attacker’s accomplice, standing by Sigonyana’s window, acted.
“A rock flew in through the window, landing on the dashboard, I don’t know how it missed me. They opened the ambulance doors through the broken windows,” said Sigonyana.
The attacker held Sigonyana at knifepoint, stealing his wallet and phone. Ndlovu was beaten on the knee with the golf club. “I was just sitting there throughout the entire thing, I couldn’t run. My knee was swollen. They took my phone, my torch, watch and my wedding ring,” said Ndlovu.
Ndlovu, who is married with three children, has still has not been able to replace her wedding ring.
She said her family worries every time she leaves for work.
“My mom hates it that I work in Khayelitsha. I sometimes have to lie to her about going to work there,” said Ndlovu.
The pair, who used to work only in Strand before their station moved to Khayelitsha, said they had never thought they’d be attacked while on the job.
“I always thought people respected ambulances and paramedics, since we’re there to help them,” said Ndlovu.
She said the ordeal had left her traumatised. “I cried the whole week… What if they had raped me, or killed my partner while I watched?
“When you’re sitting in the ambulance, you’re jittery, always nervous, looking out for suspicious-looking people. I hate it when people flock around a victim, I get very anxious. You never know who’s going to do what,” said Ndlovu.
Sigonyana said the incident had turned him into a “very angry” person.
“Community assault cases are very difficult for me to attend to. The first thing that comes to mind is: ‘This guy could be one of those who attacked us,’ ” he said.
Both say they prefer not to attend to calls from Khayelitsha unless police can escort them or the patient can be transported to a nearby public place.
Sigonyana said: “Even though it’s usually not safe to delay attending to patients, sometimes we have to take a drive to a safer public place before treating them.
“We are targets. I don’t trust anyone. We’re not safe around our own people. Even the police are scared to go that side. They told us we were lucky to survive because even they get shot at,” said Ndlovu.
“Earlier this year a female partner and I were in Site C. We were treating a patient who had been stabbed. I just heard a buzz from the community. I ran out of the ambulance the second I heard that.
“As I got out, the man who’d stabbed the patient came into the ambulance and stabbed him again. My partner left through the back door. The patient got out, chasing after the man. We had to leave him there. I took a while to drive off. I froze. Last year’s incident ran through my mind. I couldn’t even put the ambulance in gear,” said Ndlovu.
Pumzile Papu, provincial ambulance chief, said attacks on their ambulances had become a concern.
“In this year alone we’ve had about three incidents so far. Not all of them are reported; it depends on the staff members involved. It’s more or less two incidents a month,” said Papu.
He said the crimes against the ambulances and paramedics had meant that, at times, people could not get the help they needed from Emergency Medical Services (EMS).
“These people are not only enemies of EMS, they are also enemies of the community; they are disrupting a service to the community. On the day of the Masiphumelele attack, we had to remove an ambulance from the road because staff had to be taken home.”
Papu said EMS was in the process of making efforts towards preventing the attacks on ambulances and paramedics. “We are planning to have a caller ID system where we can see where people are calling us from.
In certain informal settlements we have identified standby points where patients or their relatives can meet us.”
He added that the incidents seemed to happen more frequently as they got publicised. “Or, maybe, it’s a case of staff members reporting incidents more often now that they’ve seen coverage of similar cases in the news.
“What would help is a deterrent; it also needs to be reported that these criminals are being arrested. All the people involved in the Masiphumelele incident were arrested. People must know that that is what happens when you attack an ambulance,” said Papu.
He urged communities to get involved. “Staff don’t need permission to pull back if they feel they are in danger. If they are responding to gunshot wounds, SAPS has to be on the scene. But these attackers come from the community. People know who they are. Only the community can assure the paramedics’ safety because they call them there,” said Papu.