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Chinese medical workers overcome difficulties to help typhoon survivors

Publication Date : 06-12-2013


It was 8 pm in Tacloban. An ambulance screeched to a halt, its lights flashing, and a man was carried out on a stretcher. His face and chest were covered with blood.

Chen Ruifeng, a 37-year-old emergency surgeon, ran out from a tent and escorted the man to an emergency room. Water dripped from the leaking ceiling as the rain began again. Chen placed a plastic basket under the drops and returned to his patient.

Tacloban has been without power since Super Typhoon Haiyan tore through the area in early November, with winds up to 378 kilometres an hour, ripping down power lines and driving seawater several kilometres inland.

The death toll in the Philippines is in excess of 5,700, and the figure is likely to rise.

The patient was a 19-year-old man. He had been driving when his car collided with a motorbike, catapulting him into the windshield, which shattered and caused serious injuries to his face and hands.

He was one of more than a hundred patients Chen had treated in a temporary field hospital set up by the Chinese hospital ship Peace Ark.

Before arriving at the hospital, the young man had been sent to three local medical facilities, but none of them had the supplies or equipment to treat his wounds properly.

Several of his front teeth had been shattered in the accident and fragments had been driven into his lips. Large pieces of windshield glass were embedded in his face and hands.

Chen, who has worked at the PLA Navy General Hospital for more than 14 years, used 60 stitches to sew up the wounds in and around the patient's mouth.

"We might need to send him to the ship for further treatment and probably a CT scan, as I am worried the crash might have injured his brain," said the surgeon, as he used tweezers to extract glass from the man's left hand.

Out in the field
On November 26, the day after the Peace Ark arrived on a disaster relief mission in the Gulf of Leyte, the ship's medical team set up a field hospital in the grounds of Leyte Provincial Hospital, known locally as the LPH. The temporary facility consists of seven huge tents and is staffed by more than 20 medical professionals equipped with a wide range of technology.

The role it plays is just as important as that of the Peace Ark, according to Liu Di, deputy director of the PLA navy's health department, who is head of the field hospital.

"It's located in the area that sustained the worst damage and where medical services are most needed. Because of that, we're able to give patients basic treatment before they are sent to the hospital ship, if that's necessary," he said. "So we have two hospitals, one on the ocean and one on land."

The typhoon damaged most of the local medical facilities, and those that remained relatively unscathed lack materials.

Joyoe Gadia's right leg was crushed by falling debris during the typhoon, but the 19-year-old didn't receive treatment until she was sent to the field hospital.

"The people she went to see just wrapped bandages around her leg. She didn't even have a X-ray checkup," said Chen. "It has been three weeks. I can't imagine how painful it is."

An hour after she arrived at the field hospital, Gadia was transferred to the Peace Ark by helicopter, along with eight other patients, for further treatment.

Lea Topia's baby was born aboard the hospital ship. When the 31-year-old arrived at the field hospital, her waters had already broken, according to Shi Wei, one of the Chinese nurses. The medical staff helped Topia to calm down and set about arranging her transfer to the Peace Ark.

William, Topia's husband, decided to call the little boy "Ark" in memory of the ship. However, he wasn't the only birth on the ship that day.

Another transferred woman delivered a girl soon after she was brought aboard.

"The point of the field hospital is that we can provide basic checkup and decide whether the injured need to go to the ship. If so, we alert the crew and by the time the patient gets to the Peace Ark, the staff and equipment are ready," said Liu. "It saves time for us, but most important, for the patients."

The field hospital has been providing free medical services for non-emergency patients too, a "luxury" for those struggling with the disaster and poverty.

A rusty nail had gone straight through Nigel Padrick's left foot as the 13-year-old ran barefoot through the debris.

"We don't have the money to go to the hospital, so I pulled out the nail myself," said his mother, Lorna Nogal. "But people said the wound might become infected, so I carried him to the Chinese hospital. I'm very grateful to the doctors who helped us."

Lilibeth Pada, the head of a nearby village with a population of 2,500, said 90 per cent of the houses in the village were damaged in the typhoon.

Along with food and clean water, medical services are the most urgent requirement for the locals living in unsanitary makeshift shelters.

"Skin diseases and diarrhea are common complaints in the evacuation centres," said Pada. "The field hospital can provide basic treatment for the injured and help people with common ailments, thus saving the ship's resources for those with acute illnesses or injuries."

On the day it opened, the field hospital treated 65 patients. The second day brought 85, and there were 131 on the third, according to Lu Jing, the head nurse. The facility is now receiving more than 200 patients every day and is open 24/7 so treatment can be provided for as many people as possible, she said, adding that the "patient radius" has widened.

"Initially, most of the patients came from the surrounding villages, but as word spread, people started to arrive from a city 200 kilometres away."

Leyte Provincial Hospital was badly damaged during the typhoon, forcing the immediate suspension of services. Standing just 2 kilometres inland, the hospital was engulfed by surging water, and some of its roofs were washed away.

As the largest hospital in the region, the LPH usually receives an average of 100 patients a day, according to Rosalle Uy, the supervising nurse.

Haiyan not only damaged the buildings, but some of the medical staff also lost their lives.

"If it were not for the Chinese doctors, it would have taken a long time to reopen the LPH," said Uy, who, along with five other Filipino medical staff, is working with the Chinese doctors and nurses to help the local population.

Guan Bailin, head of the PLA navy's health department, said, "We chose this location because some of the buildings are usable, and every one knows the LPH, so it's easy for people to find us."

Transport difficulties
Working alongside local people and disaster relief teams from other countries, including France, the Peace Ark's crew helped repair some of the hospital's roofs and cleaned up the debris and mud in some rooms. They also erected tents to be used as storage facilities and staff dormitories and built a helicopter pad, plus a jetty for water transfers.

Standing at the jetty, which bears a painted red cross and the name "Peace Ark", the vessel was easily visible as it rode at anchor in the gulf, gleaming in the tropical sun.

The journey from the field hospital to the ship takes less than 10 minutes by helicopter and around 30 by speedboat.

"Unfortunately, transport is still a big problem for us, especially in bad weather," said Chen.

He recalled an hour he spent waiting at the jetty in a downpour with a patient. The patient was losing blood and Chen was desperate to get him aboard the Peace Ark. "The weather was too bad for the helicopter. I was very anxious as I watched the boat slowly draw closer in the choppy

water. In emergencies, delays can sometimes prove fatal," he said.

Transport difficulties aside, Chen said the field hospital needs more staff and equipment to provide further treatment.

"As the only emergency surgeon, I've only had six hours sleep in the past two days, but patients with acute injuries still need to be sent to the hospital ship."

Chen is no strange to disaster relief. He participated in a two-month mission after the 2008 earthquake that devastated Sichuan province in southwestern China. He said the conditions then were much worse than in the field hospital. "I didn't brush my teeth for 10 days in Sichuan because of the lack of water," he said. "But here and now, we have sufficient supplies and have even set up a shower room."

Many of his colleagues at the field hospital have gained vast experience through their work in other disaster areas.

"Chinese medical staff have learned a lot from working after previous incidents," he said. "I'm sure our experience and the facilities we're providing mean we can really make a difference here in the Philippines."



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