Erasmus MC nurse Anna van den Burg (30) was in Nepal when the devastating April earthquake struck. She had travelled there to join a volunteer program, Nurse Teach Reach, but when the quake hit, found herself working in disaster relief efforts instead.
“I don’t think I could ever forget that,” Anna said, remembering the moment the earthquake struck. “I was with two other Nurse Teach Reach (NTR) nurses waiting inside to get money from an ATM for lunch. Suddenly the buildings started shaking. We were in Sauraha in Chitwan, which is a very small town with just one main street – everyone ran out of the buildings. We realised immediately that it was an earthquake, and ran outside onto the road too. You could see the road waving and bending, it was moving and all the buildings were shaking, it was very scary. The earthquake lasted for just over a minute, but it felt like forever – I was terrified that something was going to happen to us.”
Having originally travelled to Nepal to participate in the NTR program, Anna immediately found herself in an entirely different situation. NTR brings nurses to Nepal to share their skills and knowledge with Nepali nurses in bedside teaching programs. Anna had arrived over a month earlier to travel before she began her voluntary role on the 1st of April. “Coming to Nepal earlier definitely helped to prepare me before starting with NTR, because after travelling for a month beforehand I’d had a chance to get acquainted with the Nepali customs and culture. In that sense it was hugely beneficial; it prepared me for going into the hospitals and reduced the culture shock I would have otherwise experienced,” she said.
Although there were no building collapses in Sauraha, Anna and her colleagues had already heard that the damage in Kathmandu was considerable. Desperate to return and help, they were unable to travel back to Kathmandu for three days due to the damage caused to roads by landslides. When they did make it back they ‘had no idea what to expect,’ she said. “We’d heard it was a mess, but because they’d cut off the electricity we arrived in the dark. We couldn’t see how bad it was really, but we did see some collapsed buildings,” said Anna. After finding a place to sleep for the evening, they headed to the Tribhuvan University Teaching Hospital the next morning to offer their assistance.
“It was a mess. People were constantly coming in and there weren’t enough beds. People were on the ground, no observations [of patients] were being done, medication that was needed wasn’t available, wounds weren’t being taken care of – no one really knew what to do. There was no organisation or management, although even if you were trained for and expected this situation, it would still be very difficult.” After three days, ‘there weren’t people waiting outside anymore, and everything was much more relaxed’. The NTR group decided to leave, and instead continue with another project – distributing first aid kits.
First aid kits
Following the quake, the NTR volunteers began collecting medical supplies almost immediately. “Usually in Nepal, a family would have to pay for everything that’s required, including any medication,” Anna explained. “The hospitals were running out of stock and had limited means to buy these items, so we were able to help some of the smaller hospitals by providing these things.” The team collected a number of supplies for their kits, including: painkillers, dressings, hand sanitizers, fluids to clean wounds, and plaster of Paris amongst others. The kits, which they packed for almost two weeks, also included instructions, so that ‘a volunteer with no medical experience at all could still use them.’ As a small group, Anna said they found it difficult to get the kits to the remote areas where they were most needed due to the damage caused to roads in the earthquake. “We put it on Facebook and through there and all the connections we had with NTR people came to collect them, we sent them with other volunteers, doctors and nurses,” said Anna.
Since the April 25th earthquake, the National Seismological Centre of Nepal has recorded over 300 aftershocks, the largest of which occurred on May 12th. Anna recalls the fear every tremor raised. “With the aftershocks, your adrenalin is already running high. We would run outside, as although our building was apparently ‘earthquake-proof’ we weren’t going to risk it. I had a lot of trouble sleeping and my knees would tremble. When you’re busy and walking about you don’t notice it so much, but lying in bed you really do,” she recalled. Smiling a little, she recalls one instance where the group ran out the house, only to find the street outside completely normal; “We’d just learnt to protect our heads in case something falls, so we used pillows like a helmet. We’d ran outside with pillows on our heads, but everyone was just walking around normally on the street – nothing had happened. We looked stupid, but it is scary.” Still, Anna and her colleagues stayed in high spirits. “Laughing a lot works and with my Australian colleagues and the Nepali people I smiled more than I cried.”
Although Anna had originally planned on staying in Nepal and volunteering with NTR until 27th of May, she returned to the Netherlands within three weeks of the first quake: on the 11th of May, one day before the largest aftershock struck. “My colleagues were already leaving and I decided to do the same as it wasn’t possible to continue with the program in the hospitals at that time,” Anna said of leaving early. “It made me very sad when I heard about the second aftershock; that I wasn’t there anymore and so couldn’t help. Actually I felt almost guilty that day for having left earlier.”