Laos is slowly coming into its own after decades of war and political instability. New prosperity has fueled a tremendous increase in motorized vehicles resulting in a veritable anarchy of cars, trucks, motorcycles, bicycles, and tuktuks (motorized tricycles) in and around the capital city, Vientiane. Tragically, the road fatality rate in Laos is one of the worst in Asia.
In 2007, a small team of volunteers used a donated ambulance to provide first-aid service on the city’s roads, but only on weekends. In 2010, Laotian Phaichi Konepathoum, Sebastien Perret, a French trained paramedic and firefighter, and five 15-year-old volunteers created Vientiane Rescue (VR) to operate a free ambulance service on a 24/7 basis, despite the absence of equipment, sponsors, and formal training.
Driven by pure humanitarianism, the VR volunteers (students and mostly poor Laotians) worked 20 to 168 hours a week, often subsisting on nothing but instant noodles, and sometimes unable to respond to calls for help because their ambulance had run out of petrol. The first years were extremely difficult: volunteers had little equipment and few medicines; they would remove and wash bloodied bandages and their only cervical collar once the victim was already in the hospital, so these could be re-used for the next accident call. By dint of sheer perseverance and the passion to help, VR improved and professionalized its services, acquired more equipment, and expanded the range of its work. Gradually, the group’s heroic work attracted more volunteers and some assistance from local and foreign donors.
Today, VR has a one-truck firefighting unit; a one-boat scuba rescue team; a minivan converted into the country’s first EMS (Emergency Medical Service) ambulance; and a few more ambulances. Its uniformed volunteers now number 162, working a free 24-hour hotline that responds to up to 30 accidents a day. In 2015 alone, VR responded to 5,760 road accidents, and over the past five years the group has helped save as many as 10,000 lives.
A purely voluntary and homegrown effort, VR inspires many with the selfless dedication of these Laotian youth who have made its work possible despite tremendous odds. Their fellow volunteer and mentor Perret says “We do not make miracles every day, but sometimes we do and that’s amazing.”