A team of doctors and students from the Yale School of Medicine returned last Saturday from a two-week stay in Sri Lanka, where they assisted in the tsunami relief effort by providing medical care.
Traveling through camps in the eastern and southern areas of the country, Joanne Cossitt EPH ’05, Ramin Ahmadi EPH ’97, Sherwin Nuland MED ’55, Padmini Ranasinghe EPH ’05, Majid Sadigh and Monique Tello treated patients with medical problems ranging from respiratory infections and malaria to depression and chronic pain.
Although the team treated ailments directly resulting from the tsunami, most illnesses the doctors treated were related to poverty, medical school surgeon and professor Nuland said.
“Sadly, similar to what happened after 9/11, there were few survivors for us to treat because most people were killed by the tsunami,” he said. “The most common medical problems we saw, such as poor nutrition, were due to pre-existing poverty.”
And while the areas where the team first arrived had serious needs for doctors, Nuland said the camps the doctors visited later in their trip were overrun with medical groups.
“At this point, the last thing they need over there is more doctors,” he said. “What they need is money directed to specific efforts, like rebuilding homes, restoring sanitary facilities, et cetera.”
Nuland, who authored the award-winning book, “How We Die,” said the trip was an emotional experience because he had never seen such extreme poverty.
A native of Sri Lanka and resident at Griffin Hospital in Derby, Conn., Ranasinghe said more money is needed to provide shelter, rebuild hospitals and help Sri Lankans regain occupational resources than for more medical teams. She said while the team did not see signs of any serious epidemics, the doctors encountered many patients with psychological conditions from the disaster.
“I saw a couple of patients who had to run away to escape the disaster,” Ranasinghe said. “Many had post-traumatic stress and flashbacks.”
She said the doctors had to take personal precautions against malaria, contaminated water and patients’ bacterial and viral infections, but none of the physicians have fallen seriously ill.
Ranasinghe said she admires efforts by Sri Lankan leaders to keep diseases under control and maintain an operating health care system, despite the tsunami.
Some areas do not have as much access to aid, as the team learned when they accidentally ventured into a part of the Batticaloa region occupied by the rebel Tamil Tigers, where they were not protected by government forces. The doctors had to leave quickly, although patients had lined up for treatment.
Tello, a pediatrician, said the team was nervous because two doctors and the group’s drivers were Sinhali — a majority ethnic group with a history of conflict with the Tamils. Though the team was only briefly interrogated by the rebels, Tello said she was upset to leave untreated patients behind.
“It was awful to leave so quickly,” she said. “The area definitely seemed more desolate and was not well-stocked.”
Medical School Dean Robert Alpern said the school does not have any immediate plans to send doctors to Sri Lanka or other parts of South Asia affected by the tsunami but is prepared to do so if a serious epidemic arises.
“As a medical school, we then might coordinate something,” Alpern said. “For now, we think it is best to sit and watch.”
Alpern said the school is concerned that an insufficient supply of clean water might make the outbreak of disease more likely in coming weeks.