“‘Can anyone hear me?’, a rescue worker shouts. There’s nothing but silence all around in response. I held my breath and heard nothing, just sirens in the background. And I looked at the father of a child who was trapped under the rubble. There’s absolutely nothing you can do in such circumstances.” Süheyl Uyar is describing his first day in Adiyaman, where he was on standby along with Tevfik Çiçek, Shakib Sana and other volunteers to provide medical care to earthquake victims pulled out from under the rubble.
They were in the region affected by the earthquake with a group of 150 volunteers last month. The team included GPs, an A&E doctor, medical students, a psychologist, nurses as well as construction workers, engineers and police officers helping out with the rescue work. They provided medical aid to the earthquake victims and set up a field clinic in a tent camp on the campus of Adiyaman University.
EM TV: Handing out envelopes in Turkey and evacuation from student house due to danger of collapse
Medical student Süheyl Uyar talks about his trip to Turkey to help earthquake survivors.…
What they saw first-hand was an ‘indescribable catastrophe’, says Uyar. Çiçek: “There were collapsed buildings everywhere, and sirens blaring everywhere.” They had seen the footage of the first few days after the quake on television, but being in the middle of it all ‘took it to a whole new level’, says Sana. “The sounds, the smells, people who have lost everything, children’s drawings and pyjamas lying between the collapsed buildings.”
A day earlier they had no idea what they would be faced with and what they would be doing. They got a call from the organiser at around 10 p.m. asking whether they could be at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol at 5 a.m. the next morning. “All we were told was: make sure you’re self-sufficient and assume that you won’t be able to shower or sleep anywhere and that it’ll be cold”, explains Çiçek.
And it was cold at night. Minus 11, though it felt colder. Uyar: “I was wearing thermal underwear in my sleeping bag, with shorts on top, trousers on top of them, then another pair of trousers, a shirt, two fleece jumpers, my winter coat and a woolly hat. And I was still cold.”
They slept in an abandoned mosque full of cracks in the walls for the first night. An aftershock woke Çiçek during the night. “That’s pretty scary. Nothing compared to what the locals had experienced before, but it still gives you a kind of taster, as it were.” The aftershocks and the cold made it very real. “That’s when you realise that the things we go through are trivial. We were going home after a week, but for plenty of people that was their day-to-day reality”, says Sana. “It sends a chill down your spine in a very different way when someone says ‘I’ve lost my grandchild’.”
On the second day, they heard there was a small medical post on the campus of Adiyaman University, which needed more help. There was a tent camp on that campus where they were doing things like making food for a hundred thousand people. Some survivors were living there, others were going there to get aid. “We got to work straight away, with our bags still on our backs”, says Sana. “We helped hundreds of people right on that first day.”
Initially, they were mainly treating pneumonia and injuries, such as those that rescue workers had sustained to their hands due to clearing rubble in the cold. In the days that followed, they saw an increasing number of people with psychological symptoms. “People having panic attacks or unable to sleep”, says Sana. “There was a patient with depression who hadn’t had any medication for a week. Add something as traumatic as this into the mix and it’s only natural that you’ll end up in a bad way.” He says there is an acute need for psychological help, and that need will not be going away any time soon.
“Before I went out there I thought I’d mainly be treating wounds, infections or haemorrhages”, says Çiçek. “But often after stitching up a wound, the patient would tell you about lost children or a partner who had died. The degree programme does include some training in psychology and bedside manners, but it can’t prepare you for this.” Uyar compares it to a boxing match: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. What was my game plan again? You end up having to run on instinct, which is the best you can do in the circumstances.”
They became increasingly well organised over the course of the week. Some members of the group provided help in the camp while two or three teams drove out to the surrounding villages and others worked on maintaining the continuity of the healthcare. Within a week they had a field clinic encompassing two tents that spanned 70 square metres, and they acquired an AED (to restart the heart if it stops) and an ECG device (to record the heart’s electrical activity). “I think it’s great that we were able to leave our field clinic in good hands”, says Çiçek, “because aid in the region is a long-term matter.”
There is still a need for aid, Sana points out. “Over 80 percent of Adiyaman has been destroyed. The city just no longer exists. 22 million people have been affected by the earthquake. People have been uprooted. All those people need a place to live, schools, sanitary facilities. The summer is approaching, so proper hygiene measures need to be in place.”
Which is why the group organised a collection among friends and families. They soon raised 50,000 euros and put together 250 packs containing sweets and toys. Uyar and Sana went back to Turkey with three other members of the team for a few days last week to hand out the packs to more than 200 families in the villages around Adiyaman. “Ramadan is starting this week”, says Sana. “They’ll be able to use that money to buy something for their children, or a fridge now that summer is on its way. People don’t have the luxury of contemplating the future right now, as they’re just trying to get through the day. By doing this, hopefully we’ll be able to help them a bit and give them back some level of control.”
The essence of healthcare
Medical interns Uyar and Çiçek think that they learned an awful lot in one week. Çiçek: “In the span of a week we experienced the essence of healthcare: helping thousands of people each day with limited resources, cooperating, getting to know your shortcomings, having to find solutions quickly, communicating, showing humanity. This is why I’m studying Medicine. Not just to be in the operating theatre, but to help people more broadly.”
They stress that they did not head out to the region hit by the earthquake to advance their careers, but with the benefit of hindsight realise that the experience will likely make them better doctors. “Nor is this a tale of heroism”, says Uyar. “The fact that, by some twist of fate, we were in a position privileged enough to be able to help out is great, but anyone could help out. Even if it just means helping your neighbour or donating a few euros.”
Above all, they are hoping to inspire others and to ensure that people in the region are not forgotten. “As eyewitnesses we can tell the survivors’ stories. But I’m also keen to highlight the hope and the resilience. Because there’s that too”, points out Sana. During their breaks and in the evenings, they played and sang songs with the children in the tent camp. “That resilience is evident when you see how happy a balloon makes a child.”