Saturday, 30 August 2008

Emergency hospital aids China earthquake survivors

A survivor lost 8 family members in this rubble: photo by Cortassa
Dr. Giorgio Cortassa arrived in Sichuan on May 17, five days after China's strongest earthquake in 32 years, 7.8 on the Richter scale. As an emergency physician and coordinator of Italy's health project in China, he was one of the first international workers called on for help.

Cortassa set up a field hospital about 80 kilometers from the quake's epicenter. For weeks there were aftershocks, landslides, and rumours that the Beichuan dam was about to collapse. He remembers dilapidated cities, precarious hygienic conditions, water shortages, language barriers, hot temperatures -- and good Chinese crisis management.

Beichuan city: photo from Daily Mail, UK

"Logistics at Chengdu airport were frenetic, the population was scared by aftershocks, refugee camps were being set-up, the PLA [People's Liberation Army] was active but with a low technical level, water supply and latrines were proving insufficient," he said. Near Beichuan, it looked like a war zone: “dangerous and not totally collapsed buildings...the smell of decomposing dead bodies... few and shocked survivors walking around."

Chinese officials had already asked for emergency aid: "sophisticated material for search and rescue... electromagnetic probes, sound amplifiers to identify people buried under the ruins... advanced medical equipment...” A contradiction had to be resolved. Though much of this equipment would require trained technicians, the Chinese wanted no foreign personnel on the ground; people who could become a burden because unable to speak the local language. "The first rule in these cases," Cortassa said, "is not to have to rescue the rescuers."

Six days after the quake, China agreed to a foreign field hospital with 7 nurses and 7 doctors led by Giuseppe Arcidiacono. Equipment had just arrived from Italy. They set up in Xiaode, a small city about 80 km from the hardest-hit areas in river gorges, but safer because in a plain and not surrounded by high buildings or mountains. The quake had destroyed about 20 percent of local buildings, including the hospital. People crowded the streets. “The area was good in terms of the potential pool of patients,” says Cordassa, and “the area.... relatively safe” there was no danger from collapse of nearby buildings”. In less than 7 hours, local Chinese medical, Red Cross and Civil Protection staff, working with Italian technicians, were able to set up an emergency operating room, with adjoining beds and a diagnosis centre. "By 4 p.m. it started operating," he said, "and we treated on average 150, 160 patients per day." In theory, this was only an advanced medical post. AMPs are meant to treat victims in the earliest phases of an emergency before they are transferred to larger hospitals. "Practically, though, the AMP treated anything there was to be treated," Cortassa said. With the help of volunteer interpreters, the Italians trained their local counterparts and in less than a month handed over control of the AMP to local medical staff.

Not only foreign languages but local dialects posed a difficulty. An interpreter from Beijing found it hard to understand local farmers. In a brilliant stroke, 13-year-old schoolgirls who spoke some English were recruited as ‘Red Cross' interpreters for triage. Another problem was the heat. "It was... 37 to 40 * C inside the [AMP] tents at noon.. even though conditioners and fans were running at maximum capacity“, and there were only two latrines for 20,000 people.

But emergency shipments improved between May 18 and 22, some via Chinese military planes.
Italian aid alone amounted to more than 3 million euros (US$4.8 million), and included the field hospital, medical equipment, medic and paramedic staff, as well as more than 400 emergency housing tents, 5,000 blankets, high-energy food supplies and two first aid kits that could be used for up to 20,000 patients for three months. Cortassa congratulates the Chinese for managing in an increasingly “valid and orderly” way, considering the initial chaos, the remoteness of the Sichuan mountain area, and widespread devastation.

Full text of the original report by Silvia Sortori is at

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