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I Want to Be
a Tsunami Relief Worker

By Dr. Peter W. Kujtan, B.Sc., M.D., Ph.D.

Article printed on page 24 in the March 26-27, 2005 issue of
The Mississauga News under the feature: Health & Wellness, Medical Matters.
Portrait of Dr. Peter W. Kujtan, supplied 2005
Dr. Peter W. Kujtan

It is refreshing to hear that when disaster strikes in far off and mysterious places, many people get emotional about it. For these needs to be satisfied, we have to dig deep into the inner conscience and find out what drives the need. Is it guilt for living a healthy lifestyle? Is it the sheer overpowering enormity of the situation? We all feel a need to help somehow when disaster strikes around the world. It has to be large, global and well publicized for these feelings to kick in. Small stories of starvation, squalor and misfortune in our own country do not seem to do the trick for many of us. Whatever the reasons, the Christmas Tsunami produced a glut of people who inquired about the possibility of traveling to the affected regions. There seemed to be a glint of romanticism in their eyes intertwined with an air of heroism.

The realities of the situation paint a different picture. A tsunami produces intense destruction in relatively small strips of land and islands. It did not destroy the infrastructure or the ability of the affected third world countries to respond. Death is enormous and outstrips injury. In addition to destroying human settlement, it also disrupts the ecosystem, displacing animals, poisonous reptiles, and liberating diseases such as cholera and plague.

Extensive preparation is required to travel to these areas. Starting with the basics such as updating tetanus and diptheria shots. We also ensure that you have had both hepatitis A and B immunizations as well as influenza update and advise meningitis and typhoid shots. If you plan to spend time close to the devastation, cholera, rabies and Japanese encephalitis vaccines should all be considered. The romance starts to disappear by about the eighth needle. It goes without saying that pill-type of prophylaxis to resistant malaria is mandatory. The other mosquito borne disease is Dengue to which defense with DEET repellant is the best course, and you can certainly expect the areas to be rife with mosquitoes and flies. An extensive first aid kit is also recommended, preferably with antidotes to poisonous spiders, scorpions and snakes indigenous to the region you plan to rescue and rebuild. These displaced creatures are also hiding and confused. The ability to carry intravenous fluids to re-hydrate your system when your traveler's diarrhea or gastroenteritis gets out of hand is a plus. The rule of thumb in these areas is that all aid workers get ill, only that some will get by with a minor illness, while others will not be so lucky.

Other preparations for such an adventure include learning the customs and rudimentary language of the culture. In death, knowledge of religious beliefs is basic. We cannot simply expect survivors to graciously accept Western standards. One of the most difficult preparations is almost impossible to accomplish. In death scenes where bodies are exposed to heat and decomposition, the stench is horrific. Nothing can prepare one for the three-dimensional element of the odors that permeate your entire being. It is far more than an unpleasant smell. It blends into all exposed areas including your hair, skin and clothes. Even with proper sanitation, it does not wash out completely.

With time, solitary effort takes on a futile quality, and depression is only avoided by continually convincing yourself that good is occurring in numbers. Destruction of infrastructure in a few seriously affected local areas has led to confusion, waste, looting and crime. Teamwork does exist, but aid workers soon realize that numerous teams also exist, each with honorable and not so honorable goals.

Maybe the take home message in all this is to start small. Look to lend a hand in your own community. I especially like the requirement that high school students perform community service as a requisite to graduation. There might be someone standing right next to you now, or someone you know that could use a hand to overcome a problem no matter how big or small. This is the basic fabric of which true heroism is made of, and gives Easter a focused perspective. Try it, you might like it!

Related resources:

Thailand Tsunami Disaster - A Personal Experience - Reality of Death and Destruction by John M. Thompson.
Before and After Photos.
Tsunami - Wave of Destruction Photos.
Survival Photos.
Devastation Photos.
Relief Work Photos.
IBM - From the Ground Up: Tsunami Disaster Recovery.
Quake, tsunami aid workers face danger in Indonesia.
Tsunami, One Year Later: Hope and struggle intertwine in recovery. A CNN Special Report.
Tsuname, A Year Later: Indonesia pulling troops from Aceh from MSNBC. Includes Slide shows: tsunami.
The Tsunami, One Year Later: More Than a Million Still Homeless in Sri Lanka from Democracy Now.

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