“Reading about a disaster is very different from actually being in a disaster”

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Smiley faceDVL Padma Priya, MSF India’s Press Officer, recently returned from Nepal. Here she recounts the experience of seeing MSF medical teams in action and the challenges of managing emergency communications.


On Saturday, 25 April, when the earthquake struck Nepal, I felt tremors in Delhi. I wondered where the epicentre was and within seconds I got to know from my Twitter feed that it was near Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. In a matter of few hours, I was informed that MSF in India was sending four medical and non-medical teams from Bihar (the state bordering Nepal) and a team from Delhi.

Early Sunday I was informed that I would have to leave for Kathmandu to manage emergency communications. It was with a mix of dread and excitement that I boarded the flight on Monday along with two MSF surgeons. Dread as I would witness the amount of devastation that the earthquake measuring 7.8 had caused in the country and excitement because I would witness first-hand how MSF deploys its people and resources in emergencies.


After what felt like a really long flight, I reached Kathmandu and immediately got ready to meet the teams on ground and to understand the plan of action. I was acting as the media focal point and, along with another colleague, I had to ensure that all information going out was accurate and didn’t overstate what MSF was doing. It was clear from Day 1 that while Kathmandu had been damaged by the earthquake, the needs would be much higher in the districts closer to the epicentre of Barpak.  News had already begun to trickle in that Sindhupalchowk, Rasuwa, Gorkha and Dhading were the worst affected districts. After a rapid aerial assessment, MSF decided to deploy its doctors and nurses using helicopters to the worst affected villages in these districts.


I remember sitting in the first debriefing with a medical team that had just returned from the village of Kyanjin Gumba in Langtang Valley. It was apparent from that meeting that the damage was much more than anticipated. This particular village was over 80 per cent destroyed. Located at 3800 metres, it is one of the most picturesque locations of Nepal but also one of the toughest in terms of terrain and weather. The medical teams found many orphaned children and others with severely infected wounds and most of them also had psychological trauma.And all they wanted was shelter and food – in that particular order. As a communications person, whose job is to listen to and record these stories, it was immensely difficult not to get affected by what I heard. I remember feeling incredibly sad and trying to hold back my tears.


Over and over again, different MSF teams had similar stories to narrate – of villages completely destroyed and people living in temporary shelters, dreading the impending monsoons and landslides. After a week, I travelled along with a medical team to the village of Nimlung in Sindhupalchowk. As we were landing, I saw that the village had been completely destroyed by the earthquake and the people were now living in makeshift shelters constructed on terrace farms. Once we landed, the village leader was quickly informed why we were there and he helped us set up a clinic inside one of the makeshift shelters. I had seen MSF’s mobile clinics in action earlier in India and I continue to be impressed with the level of quality MSF maintains, following standard protocols, wherever we are.


I was with Emma Pedley, an MSF nurse, and Sirish, a Nepalese doctor, who did a quick triage of the population. Children and pregnant women were given preference followed by those who had complaints ranging from viral fever to gastroentitis. The doctors also saw an 80-year-old woman who had survived the roof of her house falling on her. She had bruises on her chest and a very painful, infected wound on her hand which was healing quite slowly. It was again very difficult for me to see her in so much pain but also uplifting to see the care with which Dr Sirish cajoled her as he dressed her wound.

Photo: Padma Priya


They also saw some pregnant women who were given a course of iron and folic acid tablets apart from a tetanus shot (as per the requirements of country’s health guidelines). One of them was due to deliver in a week or two. A mother of three children, she told us that her husband was severely injured and had to be medically evacuated to a hospital in Kathmandu. Most women in Nepal, as in other South Asian countries, deliver at home. She told us that before the earthquake, she was able to access the healthpost which was an hour’s walk away from the village. Since the earthquake, she had not received any medical care as the healthpost was destroyed. We offered to have her flown out to the nearest district hospital but she refused as she was concerned about her other children. The team then decided to do a follow-up in a week to check on her.


I will remember her because she had a very vacant look in her eyes – the eyes of someone who has seen a lot and yet is trying to find a way to cope. It also made me realise the really tough situation pregnant women and children were in in this difficult terrain. The same day, another team evacuated a woman in labour from Walapa village (Dolaka district) to a hospital to ensure she had a safe delivery. I later heard she delivered a healthy baby boy!


It is one thing to hear that MSF goes where needs are greatest and a completely different thing to see the teams work day in and day out to ensure these needs are addressed. From delivering shelter kits, food, hygiene kits to conducting mobile clinics and setting up an inflatable hospital (yes! An inflatable hospital!) -MSF continues to do its best for those affected there.


For me, the whole experience has been an intense one. In a disaster of this scale, it is very normal for news reporting to record the number of lives lost and number of people injured. But what we don’t get to see or experience is the effect a disaster has on individuals and the community. Reading about a disaster is very different from actually being in a disaster. Being in Nepal made me see the devastation not just in homes and lives that the earthquake took away, but also in those it spared. Needless to say, it has transformed me as a person.


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