A first-aider and a diplomat
How do you set up an emergency medical system in a country like Somalia? Panagiotis Ioannidis has been a first aid and pre-hospital emergency care delegate for the ICRC in Somalia for the past 17 months. In this interview he tells us about his remarkable career path, his passion for the ICRC’s work and what his job involves.
Love at first sight
I studied international relations and international law in Greece, where I come from, in the hope of becoming a diplomat, but I realized that my personal values didn’t fit with the ideas surrounding state politics and geopolitics. I felt lost. Luckily, while taking a course in international humanitarian law, my teacher – a former ICRC delegate – introduced me to the work of the ICRC and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. I was immediately hooked. My goal became to work for the Red Cross. I started out in the Movement while I was a student by volunteering as a first-aider for the Hellenic Red Cross.
The Hellenic Red Cross took volunteering and the identity, values and Fundamental Principles of the Movement very seriously, which increased my motivation even more. On top of that, I fell in love with the world of medical science. I decided to study for a degree as an emergency medical technician and nurse. After graduating, I gained my first work experience with organizations such as Médecins Sans Frontières and Médecins Du Monde – and then I felt ready to apply for the ICRC. As I had a background in political science, I started as a political adviser in Greece, where I became responsible for building and maintaining the ICRC’s relationship with the Hellenic Red Cross and for promoting international humanitarian law within academia and the Greek armed forces. I was posted to Syria and then to Somalia as a first aid and pre-hospital emergency care delegate. I’m now in my third year working overseas for the ICRC.
Paramedics and hospital work
Working in a hospital and being a paramedic are entirely different experiences. In most of the Western world, hospital settings are sterile and relatively comfortable environments. You are prepared to receive patients, and this means that most of the time you have all the necessary equipment, support, help, lighting – and it’s safe. If you are working “on the road”, as we call it, you lack most of these things. It may be pitch-dark or raining. You could be standing in the middle of a riot or next to a burning building, surrounded by police sirens, angry mobs, people shouting and the air full of tear gas. While this can happen back home, it’s much more likely in the places where the ICRC works. You have to improvise on the spot, because you and your patients are in a precarious situation. It makes pre-hospital work more challenging but more interesting and rewarding in my eyes.
The grand scheme of things
What we are doing for the ICRC is different from what we were taught to do while studying to be a paramedic or doctor. Ambulance work is very different when your ambulance is a donkey or a boat and all you have is a makeshift stretcher!
However, my work is rarely hands-on now. I focus on systems, on the grand scheme of things. This can be frustrating compared to working with organizations where you ride in the ambulance, see your patients and tend to them. But in the end, the results are extremely gratifying because you achieve bigger and longer-lasting results.
Building an emergency medical system from scratch
When I first arrived in Somalia, the Somali Red Crescent Society already had a group of ambulance responders, but the emergency system was very much in its infancy. In the case of a mass casualty incident, frequent in Mogadishu, they used to rely on the sound of the bomb going off to direct them towards the scene.
During the 17 months that I’ve been here, we’ve worked closely with them to set up a functional dispatch centre and expanded the role of the ambulance responders. They’ve received more advanced equipment and training to develop their clinical skills and provide life-saving services. We also introduced a toll-free, three-digit emergency phone number for people to report incidents and promoted the number across the country using radio, TV, posters, stickers, billboards, and even parades.You can read more about the work of the Somali Red Crescent and ICRC team in this photo article.
Working in emergency medicine is rarely a boring job, but this is especially the case at the ICRC. There is no routine. While you’re guided by the technical team in Geneva and your local coordination colleagues, you still have a substantial level of autonomy to run your programme, which is very fulfilling.
Cultural experiences and people you would usually never meet
Because of security issues, we spend a lot of time working on Somali projects from Nairobi. Field trips to Somalia take place after extensive preparation by the security team, so I feel safe when I’m there. Although the trips are intense, with long working days, I try to savour every moment I spend with my team. Our Somali colleagues do the same work as us, while actually living in such volatile circumstances, which makes their job even more challenging. I have nothing but respect for them and consider myself privileged to work alongside them. In the hours when I’m not working, I make an effort to learn about the incredibly rich Somali culture, with its beautiful music, good food and delicious tea with camel milk. I enjoy philosophical discussions with colleagues and driving through the country’s amazing landscapes, full of goats and camels.
More than clinical skills
If you’re thinking of applying for the ICRC, first, you need to know that you’ll be leaving your former life behind and will have to live away from your family and friends for long periods. Embarking on such a wonderful career does come at a cost to your personal life, which can affect people differently. For me, this has always been the most difficult part of doing what I do.
Second, I advise you to read the Movement’s Fundamental Principles carefully and see if you can live by them before you apply. As a delegate, you’re more than just a technical expert; you represent an organization that is over 150 years old and has a unique mandate.
Last, while your technical knowledge and clinical skills are extremely important for guiding your decisions, most of the time it’s your managerial, administrative and analytical abilities, as well as your ability to adapt, that are put to the test. But don’t forget the interpersonal skills – because at the end of the day, it’s all about diplomacy.
Would you like to follow in Panagiotis’ footsteps? Take a look at our healthcare related positions here.