FEB. 14, 2005 | The tsunami that killed more than 150,000 across several southeast Asian countries on Dec. 26 also touched the lives of two University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) faculty members, but in different ways.
When the undersea earthquake that generated the tsunami hit off the coast of Indonesia, one UAMS professor was visiting his native Sri Lanka, which was within the disaster zone. The other professor arrived there days later as part of a medical team participating in the relief effort.
Maha Mahadevan, D.V.M., Ph.D., M.B.A., an associate professor in reproductive endocrinology in the UAMS College of Medicine and director of the Assisted Reproductive Technology Labs at UAMS, was in the middle of his first visit to his hometown in Sri Lanka in about 15 years when the tsunami hit.
He and his family were staying with a sister on the western side of the island nation when the large waves devastated portions of the eastern coast.
“We really didn’t realize the scope of the disaster at first because the first TV reports did not have a lot of information,” Mahadevan said. “We had visited one beach a few days before that was wiped out. We also had plans to go to a national park that was hit that day but had changed our planned plans. We feel kind of lucky now.”
After the waves hit, Mahadevan went to see another sister, who lives in an apartment complex not far from the ocean. There was some flooding nearby and people were panicking and evacuating. Mahadevan said he convinced them to stay in their apartment, which was on the fourth floor. The water began to recede in about an hour or so, he said.
At the same time, they got a call from one of his nieces, who lived in an apartment that where water was entering the basement. Mahadevan said he tried to convince her to stay in the upper-level apartment and away from the panic in the streets. He was unsuccessful, but his niece was able to safely get her car out of the basement and leave with her son.
“It is very sad,” he said of the disaster that claimed the lives of some extended members of his wife’s family in the tsunami. “I am happy to see the relief efforts. The whole world is helping.”
Mahadevan said he was also pleased when he returned to find so many messages of sympathy and support from friends and colleagues.
Another UAMS faculty member took part in that relief effort. Henry Lile, M.D., an assistant professor of radiology, spent 10 days in Sri Lanka as part of a 17-member disaster response team associated with a Presbyterian Church of America group called Mission to the World that included doctors, nurses and counselors.
The group, equipped with a portable lab, medications and medical supplies, set up camp amid an estimated 1,800 refugees from a fishing village near Vakaneri in eastern Sri Lanka. For 10 days the medical team worked from a tent clinic and treated half of the refugees in the camp. They left feeling like a positive difference had been made.
“As we arrived, the people had a hopeless, dead look in their eyes,” Lile said. “It looked like the newsreels you see from the end of World War II … like the faces of the concentration camp survivors. They looked mentally devastated.”
What had been a prosperous fishing village had been totally wiped out by the waves, leaving debris and a few foundations, he said. Lile said that while walking on the beach, random objects could be seen in the sand, from a child’s book satchel to part of a TV.
The majority of the injured suffered cuts or bruises, usually from being hit by debris. Many had inhaled so much salt water that it irritated their lungs, he said. By the end of the second week, he said, they began to see some infections but no measles outbreaks as occurred in some of the affected cities.
There were emotional cases. Lile spoke of an 18-year-old who was brought in for treatment by his aunt. He had seen his parents washed out to sea and had not spoken since.
The parents of an 18-month-old girl walked five miles to bring the child to the clinic for dehydration, Lile said. Members of the medical team, including a retired nurse from Arkansas, stayed up through the night to keep the flow of intravenous fluids into the girl. Her condition improved enough for transport to a hospital but Lile guessed the girl would have died within hours without treatment.
The team camped among the refugees, which Lile believes helped the refugees accept and appreciate the team’s help. Members of the medical team also had to share camp chores when not treating patients.
The team worked eight hours a day seeing patients but remained on call for emergencies, including after hours cases that included a report of chest pains and a snake bite.
“When we left 10 days later, the people showed new life in their faces as they lined up on the road to smile and wave goodbye,” Lile said. “It seemed they regained hope.”
It’s not the first time Lile has been part of a medical team traveling to a disaster zone. He has been involved in such mission trips and relief efforts for 20 years, becoming more involved when he retired from private practice in 1999.
“It’s my niche for service. I’m hooked,” Lile said. “Many younger medical professionals have families and schedules that aren’t as flexible as mine. My wife understands and is supportive and I can’t say enough about the support of Dr. Ferris [Ernest J. Ferris, M.D., chairman of the UAMS Department of Radiology] and the Department of Radiology.”
Mahadevan recently visited Lile to thank him for his work in Sri Lanka.
“The area where they went was so remote that without Dr. Lile and the mission team he was with, people would have suffered and some would surely have died,” he said.
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