First aid

by Pietro Bartolo

Une Grande Nation (Issue IV/2017)

As a child of Lampedusa I grew up with the sea. As soon as I was old enough – maybe eight or nine – my father brought me along on the Kennedy. That’s what our family’s boat was called because it was first launched in 1963, the year that US President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I spent days and nights at sea, helping my father, who worked as a fisherman his whole life to feed me and my six siblings. The sea was my home back then – but even at that age I already knew I did not want to follow in my father’s footsteps. I was obsessed with the desire to become a doctor. 

And it was for a very simple reason. Health care on Lampedusa was very limited at the time. There was something missing in every sector on the island but most of all, doctors were missing. The whole of Lampedusa had only one doctor. If somebody became seriously ill, a plane had to be called from the mainland.  That meant it took six or seven hours before the patient finally arrived at the hospital in Palermo for treatment. For many, help came too late. I wanted to change this. 

My family completely supported me in this and sent me to a science-focussed school in Trapani, a city in western Sicily. I was 13 years old and the first few years at school were torture because I was so very homesick. I distracted myself by poring over schoolbooks. I only really started to feel better when I moved to live with my sister, Enza, and her husband in Syracuse. It could also be because I met Rita, the woman who would be my wife, in that new class.

After I finished school I studied medicine at the University of Catania. Later on I specialised in gynaecological medicine. Then in 1986, I returned to Lampedusa – together with Rita and our young daughter, Grazia. I opened my own practice, became a city councillor and eventually deputy mayor. Now I could really fight for my homeland. I secured an air ambulance service and a rescue helicopter for Lampedusa and I imagined that we would now look forward to a carefree future. But the sea had other plans.

The first refugees arrived by boat in 1991. They were three young men who had ferried themselves across from North Africa in a tiny boat, small as a cockleshell. After that the boats got bigger and more crowded. At first we used to put the people up in army barracks where I could examine them in peace.

But by the mid-1990s there was not enough space there anymore. So we set up a central contact point, built a first aid station and looked for other accommodation options on the island. What had been an exception now became our daily reality.

Today I think I may be the doctor that has seen the most corpses. Every day countless people die off our coasts, young women, small children. Most of the time that is so depressing. A lot of people think that, over the years, I must have become used to this feeling of pity for the refugees. But every dead person has their own history, they all had their own hopes, dreams and sad stories.

A lot of people come to me with terrible burns because the mixture of petrol and saltwater in the boats has corroded their skin, others are holding dead new-born babies in their arms or they have seen their entire family drown before their eyes. How can I make the world understand these things, things I have seen every day for decades now?

Back when I first had the desire to be a doctor I could not have imagined what the future held for me. But now I consider it my first and only duty to help.

When I was still small, a cutter ran into the cliffs outside Lampedusa’s harbour in a bad storm. Everyone said that there was nothing anybody could do – but my father and his friends jumped into the Kennedy and went out there. They were obeying the law of the sea, and of fishermen, something that is not dissimilar to my doctor’s oath: One is not allowed – yes, it is actually unthinkable – to leave any other human being to the wrath of the sea. In this regard, Europe could learn a lot from the fishermen here. 

Transcribed by Kai Schnier

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