Volunteering at Britain's Street Doctors isn't for the faint-hearted. The charity, staffed by 200 unpaid medical students, targets city youth caught up in the U.K.'s ongoing knife crime epidemic, teaching them skills to keep themselves and others alive. Often already involved in gangs, these kids are all-too-well versed in Britain's street warfare.
"The most common question we get is 'Where's a safe place to stab someone?'" says Street Doctors' Chief Executive Charlotte Neary-Bremer. "We have to explain to them that there's nowhere, that even in a part of the body you think might be safe, you can cause infection and a victim can die quite easily."
The problems the charity addresses are severe. British shootings may be a mere droplet compared to America's ocean, but Britain's knife crime problems would make any country shudder. According to figures released this summer, around 400 people are injured in knife attacks every month in London alone. Many of the victims are teenagers. As this map shows, 156 people under the age of 18 have been murdered across the city since 2005, most of them by stabbing. The number of deaths has reduced slightly this year, but the spree of violence shows no real sign of ending – for instance this attack occurred within view of my kitchen window just last week.
Street Doctors works on the rationale that giving at-risk kids information and survival skills can stop violence as much as prison terms for carrying weapons. The U.K.'s tabloid press likes to run wild with tales of feral Britain, but the truth is that many young people carrying knives are in fact terrified of becoming victims themselves. They also unaware of just how dangerous a stab wound can be.
"The young people we work with often think that being stabbed is a whole lot safer than it actually is," says Neary-Bremer. "They think that people have so much blood they can afford to lose a lot, and might not even call for help. They don't realize that things can get very serious, very quickly."
So Street Doctors runs workshops that try to save lives with practical advice.
"We talk about how the body works, and about the major organs. A lot of our work is about stressing the importance of the blood. We teach them to apply indirect pressure to wounds with anything to hand – any old jumper, a coat or socks. We also give them a chance to talk through issues – most of our volunteers are only a few years older than them anyway, so there's often a pretty good rapport."
The charity's work is a bright spot in a rather lukewarm fight against knife crime. While there's been much public angst across Britain on the subject, political action has often been lacking. London Mayor Boris Johnson has come in for scathing criticism from his own advisers for merely "going through the motions" regarding knife crime. The reasons for the oversight are painful. Most of the victims are from impoverished, often minority communities about which Britain's powerful have little knowledge. Many of them are caught up, either actively or as bystanders, in Britain's own strain of gang war, territorial struggles dubbed Postcode Wars because they pit neighborhood against neighborhood. These people's problems are a foreign country to many decision-makers, who often lack the political will to tackle causes of violence that are deep-rooted and complex. So projects like Street Doctors that actually talk to at-risk urban youth can be vital in changing attitudes.
As Neary-Bremer has experienced, they can also save lives:
With many young people who come in, it often hits them very hard, and they do change their behavior. So far, we've heard back that young people who've been on our courses have saved three lives with their first aid skills – two of those were stab victims and one had a cardiac arrest. Just giving young people these sorts of useful skills can make them feel a lot more positive about themselves.