Sara Purola has worked at EMA Finland for over 30 years. As a coordinator, she works on international issues from Finland. The years of work have also included a post-tsunami rescue operation.
Purola works for EMA’s travel emergency service. The purpose of the travel emergency service is to help when a Finn traveling abroad gets sick or injured. The travel emergency service ensures that the patient receives appropriate treatment abroad and, if necessary, arranges for them to get home.
The task of the travel emergency service is to monitor and coordinate patient care from Finland. At its simplest, it can mean directing a sick tourist at a resort to the right treatment facility, but sometimes it requires arranging an ambulance flight for a patient who has fallen ill on the other side of the world and needs intensive care.
“If there are difficult cases, our core competence is to monitor the patient’s care and make sure everything goes well. We can arrange for the patient to be transferred to a better hospital, for example, transfer them to another country for treatment or bring them back to Finland. Even if the customer is an insurance company, our own doctors make treatment decisions based on a medical assessment, says Purola.”
When a sick or injured person abroad needs to get back to Finland, EMA’s travel emergency service arranges a suitable method of transport, whether it requires transport by land, air or sea. There are many types of air transport alone.
“In air transport, the customer does not necessarily need any special arrangements, it is enough to organize a plane ticket and a wheelchair allowance. On scheduled flights, the patient can also be accompanied by a doctor, a nurse or, in some cases, both. An ambulance flight is the most expensive and demanding option, says Purola.”
The travel emergency service not only helps Finns who fall ill abroad, but also foreigners who fall ill in Finland.
“We have a large network of foreign companies and organizations that use our services when they need medical assistance in Finland or the Baltics. During normal times, we organize ambulance rides, treatment facilities, doctor’s visits or other medical services for foreigners vacationing in Finland.”
Involved almost from the beginning
EMA was founded in 1989, and Purola started working there in 1991. She has therefore been involved in the different phases of the company almost since its foundation. In the beginning, EMA operated in a small rented room, where Purola made phone calls as a part-time employee in addition to her other jobs. In 1994, she started to work for EMA full-time.
Over the years, EMA has grown from a small operator with a few employees to a company employing almost 300 people, which, in addition to travel emergency services, produces first aid and ambulance services, as well as first aid training. Purola has been able to hire several coordinator colleagues, for whom she currently acts as a supervisor.
According to Purola, working as a coordinator requires good language and prioritization skills as well as the ability to withstand pressure.
“Learning this job is not easy. There is no school where this is taught, the job is learned by doing it. Although this is routine work on the one hand, the variability is what has kept me here. I would never have wanted an eight-to-four job, says Purola.”
Boxing Day Tsunami Major Operation
The heaviest work week in Purola’s entire work history took place at the turn of 2004 and 2005. As a result of the Boxing Day tsunami caused by the earthquake, more than 200,000 people lost their lives in Indonesia, Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia. There were thousands of Finns in the disaster area at the time of the incident, of which 179 died in the accident.
In 2004, there were no smartphones or social media yet, so information about the scale of the disaster spread slowly to the world. At first, even in Finland, it was erroneously reported that no Finns were missing.
When the real situation finally dawned, EMA, together with Finnair, was the first Finnish operator to go to the tsunami area to take the injured back home.
“It was a tough place for many authorities that a private company goes to help without asking before them. It was not the place to ask the people who needed help if they have insurance and money or not. We just had to get people out of there, and we had the know-how for that, says Purola.”
Shortly after EMA, the Finnish Red Cross also left to Thailand. 32 doctors and nurses from EMA participated in the tsunami operation, some of them shuttled between Finland and Thailand bringing the injured home, while others stayed longer in the disaster area looking for Finnish patients and assessing the need for treatment.
“On one flight there were more than twenty mildly or seriously injured children, whose parents were missing and it was not known whether they were alive or not, says Purola.”
In cooperation with other operators, EMA eventually repatriated dozens of Finns from Thailand. After the incident, the Finnish authorities were criticized for the slow start of the rescue work, but Purola praises the cooperation of Finnish operators.
“We also offered help to the Swedes, but they refused. Overall, the Finns handled the incident excellently. We brought our injured home really quickly compared to many other countries, says Purola.”
The borders are closed, but the longing for far away does not go away
Over the years, the world has changed, but the essence of the coordinator’s work is still the same as it was 30 years ago: when a person traveling abroad gets sick, their treatment and possibly their return home must be organized in one way or another.
From the coordinator’s point of view, the most significant change happened only recently, when due to the corona pandemic, the need for Travel, and thus also the need for travel emergency services, has decreased significantly all over the world. However, during the pandemic, EMA has flown many ambulance flights for corona patients.
At the time of writing this interview, the corona pandemic is raging around the world, but vaccines have brought hope that at some point we will be able to return to the time before the corona. Purola believes that at the point when corona has been sorted out, people will start traveling in almost the same way as before.
“People have a need to travel, see new cultures and relax.”