'I'm a medical soldier,' says doctor who treated victims at 2 Paris terror attacks

Dr. Patrick Pelloux was one of the first responders on the scenes of both the January shootings at French magazine Charlie Hebdo and the November attacks on civilians in Paris. He says emergency workers everywhere must change their response plans.

Dr. Patrick Pelloux was a first responder at both Charlie Hebdo and Paris civilian attacks

Emergency room doctor Patrick Pelloux, a writer for French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, was one of the first people to arrive and treat the injured after the January 2015 attack on the publication's offices. He was also one of the first medical responders on the scene of the Nov. 13 attack on civilians in Paris. (Richard Devey/CBC)

Dr. Patrick Pelloux is an expert in injuries both physical and psychological.

His experience as an emergency room doctor certainly contributed to that dexterity. But it was the attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo back in January that made Dr. Pelloux an authority.

He was a writer for the magazine at the time, and could have easily been present at the news meeting that was underway when gunmen barged into the offices and fired at staff, many at point-blank range, killing 11 people.

Dr. Pelloux happened to be at another meeting, but was one of the first to arrive at the scene of the carnage — and to try to save the lives of colleagues he's known for years.

That was traumatic enough, but less than a year later, Dr. Pelloux was again on the triage front line last Friday as Paris coped with a far deadlier attack on civilians.

He has no doubt about what France is confronting.

"It is war," he says. "People were attacked with weapons of war everywhere in Paris. They were riddled by bullets, and terrorists blew themselves up in order to kill more people. They put bolts and pieces of metal in their jackets to hurt as many people as possible."

Dr. Pelloux says France and other countries must change how they train first responders to cope with what now appears to be an omnipresent threat.

A woman is evacuated from the Bataclan theatre after a shooting in Paris. (Thibault Camus/AP)

'That's part of my life now'

He has certainly been forced to make changes in his life, too.

Although he no longer writes for Charlie Hebdo, Pelloux goes nowhere without personal security. When we met at a brasserie this past weekend, armed soldiers stood outside to keep watch.

Dr. Pelloux shrugs it off. "That's part of my life now."

(To his point: The last time I met someone who required this much protection who wasn't a world leader, it was in war-torn Iraq. This is Paris.)

He says the medical profession is also adjusting its methods to acknowledge war-like circumstances.

Dr. Pelloux says that since January, first responders have met with military doctors and incorporated methods to deal with bullet and shrapnel wounds. French emergency workers now have extra kit, not unlike what military medics carry in war zones — products and bandages specifically designed to stanch bleeding from such injuries.

"I'm convinced all of the emergency responders in the world have to change their emergency response plan," he says.

"Because we know that if you treat someone quickly who's hemorrhaging from bullets in war, you can save 45 per cent more lives."

Dr. Pelloux has strong feelings on what France, Europe and the West as a whole must do to confront groups like ISIS.

"They're professional terrorists. That's why you need to kill them. That's why you can't negotiate with them," he says. "We have to get them all."

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      Psychological trauma

      Dr. Pelloux, who is 52, has plenty of advice on the psychological end of trauma, too.

      The feelings of public unease have been palpable. On the day I was scheduled to meet Dr. Pelloux, mourners had gathered at Place de la Republique to commemorate the victims.

      But panic spread through parts of the city when people mistook firecrackers for more gunfire, such that our team got caught in the sprinting melee and arrived at the brasserie an hour late.

      Dr. Pelloux had grown anxious as he waited, but wasn't in the least surprised.

      "People will hear explosions. There are lots of false alarms. Last night, a man shot his wife with a gun. Everybody thought it was a terrorist attack. It was just a murder."

      The survivors are worst off when it comes to psychological injuries, he says.

      "For months and months, images flash and visions of horror. For months," says, again waving his hand. 

      "You see a psychiatrist, perhaps two. You have to get away from everything that has anything to do with the attack or danger. It takes a long time," he says. "You have to learn how to live with it."

      A banner reading "Meme Pas Peur" (Still Not Afraid) on the Liberte monument in Paris following Friday's terror attacks. (Submitted by Krista Taylor)

      Deja vu

      Dr. Pelloux waves off questions about his own trauma, especially in light of the recent deja vu. But he says he quit Charlie Hebdo precisely to get away from the constant reminders of the friends he lost.

      And now it's happened again, just as he predicted.

      Is he afraid? "Never fear. You can't be afraid," he says.

      Sad, perhaps? "We don't have the time to be sad, we have to fight," he counters.

      Surely angry then. He finally nods.

      "Determined," he concludes.

      "We are not heroes," Dr. Pelloux says gruffly. "We're at war, and I'm a medical soldier."

      About the Author

      Nahlah Ayed

      Host of CBC Ideas

      Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.


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