The images of parents grieving over the bodies of their children drove many people to give from their hearts and wallets when an earthquake and tsunami hit parts of South East Asia. Canada’s DART team was deployed to Sri Lanka within a few weeks of the disaster. Many Canadians gave in unprecedented ways, and I chose to join a group of nurses and doctors from across the GTA. With funds collected by the Islamic Foundation of Toronto, donated by many GTA mosques and IDRF (International Development and Relief Foundation), we were granted the opportunity to directly contribute towards the tsunami relief effort. Little did we know that we would become the only Canadian NGO (non-governmental organization) providing medical relief in Indonesia.
Our team of 11 people, including 5 nurses, 3 doctors, and 3 other administrative team members departed January 19, 2005 for the region of Aceh Province. Banda Aceh, at that time was heavily burdened with incoming supplies and international resources. It is for this reason that our team decided to provide care to the less supported region of northern Sumatra, the northeastern coast of Aceh. It was here, just outside Panton Labu, that the Islamic Foundation of Toronto tent clinic was established. This area was chosen because it had a great number of injured and homeless people, who were receiving little to no medical care. Over 6, 000 displaced people were placed in temporary camps, and our clinic was positioned just outside a camp of 2,000 people.
Opening for business exactly one month following the tsunami, the clinic served patients living in several IDP (internally displaced person) camps in the area. As a month had passed, the area had been cleaned of bodies; those made homeless had been placed in overcrowded, hot tents, with no privacy. Whatever little they were able to salvage was kept at their side. Many families reported losing one or more family members to the tsunami.
On a daily basis the clinic treated 30-50 patients. The most common health complaints were dermatological (scabies, dermatitis, lacerations, abrasions), respiratory (bronchitis, URTI, some TB), and gastrointestinal (diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, reflux). We did see cases of post-traumatic stress disorder; sleep disturbance, loss of appetite, and palpitations. We found a man with a foot wound he sustained while running from the tsunami. It had not healed in the month before we arrived. Upon our assessment, we found it to be grossly infected and foul smelling. Unfortunately, his foot would require amputation. Many people had contracted fungal skin infections from using the local contaminated well water. Many others told us they inhaled tsunami water, which was now causing respiratory illness. Others claimed they had swallowed the tsunami water. One woman admitted she swallowed so much of it, that her stool contained sand. Orthopaedic injuries were surprisingly unattended. We found a man with fractured radius and ulna. He had a homemade splint made of bamboo and cloth, yet his fracture was displaced and not healing. We arranged for treatment and transported him to the nearest surgical hospital, 1 hour away.
Even though only a month had gone by since the devastating tsunami, the children seemed resilient, laughing and playing with the frisbees and soccer balls we brought along. They loved to have their pictures taken, and followed us around when we walked through their camp. I was amazed at how little these people had before the tsunami came. They were fishermen and lived in simple wooden huts on the coast. After the tsunami destroyed their homes, boats, and took their loved ones, they had nothing. Now, after 2 months had passed, they wanted to return to the coast and start over again. But the government of Indonesia is preparing wooden barracks for them in a 2 year long roll out plan to re-design the coastal living areas. Unfortunately, it will take years for these people to get their lives and livelihoods back.
We were able to hire some of the IDP’s to assist in building a more stable building out of wood, and to our surprise within four days the new wooden clinic was built. We were able to hire Indonesian nurses and doctors to fill our positions as we left. When we left, our team members felt a great sense of pride, and were overcome with emotion to see the Canadian flag flying high, on the thatched roof of our health clinic, in a farmer’s field in Panton Labu, Indonesia.