02/01/06 — Local doctor in MASH unit at earthquake

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Local doctor in MASH unit at earthquake

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on February 1, 2006 1:45 PM

A Goldsboro doctor returned to his native Pakistan last month to help with efforts to start rebuilding the country -- and families' lives -- more than a month after a devastating earthquake killed 80,000 people and left four million homeless.

Dr. Waheed Akhtar of Goldsboro Heart Specialists spent two weeks working in the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, or MASH unit, where an average of 200 patients were seen daily.

Although the earthquake struck in the early morning hours of Nov. 21, the ramifications are still being felt, he said.

"When it happened, nobody knew the magnitude of this problem because of the communication gap," he said. The affected area is mountainous with narrow roads made more dangerous since the earthquake, with the best access via helicopter, mule or on foot. He said it took his group nearly seven hours to travel 150 miles.

Akhtar said the tent villages are now neighborhoods for the survivors, and that relief work is very slow.

"No government can handle that kind of catastrophic problem," he said. The international community has been supportive, he said, with groups like the Association of Pakistani Physicians of North America pitching in where needed. He also received donations locally from the hospital and surrounding community.

Initially, the Association arranged for tents, blankets and medical supplies, as well as food. But now comes the second phase, rehabilitation, which has virtually stalled, he said.

"The area is about 300 miles. Every house is broken or cracked. People still live inside or would have to live in the tents," he said.

Construction there is predominantly concrete, unable to withstand such jostling, plus "the area has never really had an earthquake of this magnitude," Akhtar said.

With no mortgage system in Pakistan, residents save for years before having a house built, he said. There's also no home insurance, so if the building is toppled, the owner loses practically everything.

"There's nothing to rebuild it again," he said.

Tents serve as makeshift homes where residents cook, wash clothes in buckets of water, and then dry them on bushes outside, Akhtar said. The government also provides weekly rations.

At the outset, medical services were the most pressing need, especially in the areas of trauma and orthopedic injuries, Akhtar said. Local physicians did what they could, he said, "but they didn't even have bandages."

Infections were also a problem, he said, estimating that more than 2,100 people required amputations. As a result, the APPNA has since set up a prosthetic factory in Pakistan, which manufactures artificial limbs. Patients are also fit for them and receive rehabilitative services.

Most of the latest patients being seen are for communicable diseases, he said.

"Now it's about their living in close quarters. Coughs and colds are the main things they deal with," he said.

The MASH unit is set up like a hospital with a corridor, only in tent form. It has heat, air conditioning, and electricity, and features a lab, X-ray, CT scan, inpatient area, and intensive care unit, as well as an operating room where an average of eight surgeries are done daily, Akhtar said.

Physicians from all over the globe have pitched in to re-establish medical services, many volunteering for two-week stints like Akhtar did. Doctors and nurses are also receiving additional training, particularly in the areas of rehabilitation and physical therapy, he said.

A group of countries pledged $1.5 billion in aid and another $5 billion in terms of loans early on, but Akhtar said the government has not received the donations to date. He said that former President George Bush Sr. had recently made a trip there to remind the countries to honor their pledges.

Other observations made during his stint there centered around the children and their schools. He said in the area where he was stationed, there were close to 4,000 children who had been orphaned. No funds were available to set up an orphanage school, while regular schools, he said, "are all under the sky. All the schools, universities and colleges have collapsed."

"This will take years to actually build the whole infrastructure."

The area most devastated is about 100 miles from Akhtar's relatives in the Kashmir area. He said destruction and loss of life there was minimal by comparison, and that his family members were safe.

His connection to the area made it an obvious choice to return and help where he could.

"I'm glad that I went. I wish that I had more time to spend there. I still feel that a lot needs to be done," he said.

"I think there's a mixture of feelings. The majority wanted to go back home on foot. But they have lost their loved ones. There's grief. ... And some with broken bones or legs. They have the zeal to go back, but it's kind of hard to go back to what they did before."

Donations are tax-deductible and Akhtar said he will gladly accept contributions through his office. The address is Goldsboro Heart Specialists, 2400 Wayne Memorial Drive, Suite A, Goldsboro, NC 27534.