Below is a first-person account of disaster relief work in South Asia by physician assistant Christina Davies. Davies responded to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in NYC and received the Humanitarian Service Medal for her work as an EMT. She has worked with Mission to the World (MTW) Disaster Response since 2001, providing medical care on four continents. When she is not on the field, Davies handles operations and training for MTW Disaster Response.
How do you make an impact on the world for Christ working in an obscure location among people you don’t know, surrounded by pain and destruction that you can’t comprehend? This is my life—the life of a relief worker. I serve with Mission to the World’s (MTW) Disaster Response Ministry … and this is a day in my life.
0500: I wake up with a start to someone talking outside my room … but it’s not English. Where am I? What is this wooden plank I am sleeping on? Why is there mosquito netting hanging over me? It takes me a moment to get my bearings and then I remember … I’m in South Asia. I arrived only a few hours ago after a 10-hour truck ride over 120 miles of countryside. Before that, I spent 24 hours in the air flying across the world to reach this country that has been ravaged by a cyclone. One of the deadliest cyclones of all time, it left 140,000 dead, 20,000 injured, 800,000 displaced, and 2.4 million “severely affected.”
0515: I roll out of “bed” and grab my bottle of iodinated water to brush my teeth. No showers here, just a quick stop at the bathroom, which is a putrid hole in the ground behind the dilapidated building where my team is staying.
0530: I swallow my malaria prophylaxis medication. I am covered from head to toe in DEET, the gold standard for keeping the little pests from biting me, and my clothes have been soaked and treated with Permethrin. I also have on my over-the-ankle hiking boots, which I wear everywhere. I learned the importance of boots when I was in Sri Lanka after the tsunami and was sitting on the ground counting out medications. I felt something on my leg, looked over … and there was a cobra sliding happily across my ankle (thanks to growing up with six brothers, I remained calm). I’m now ready to go.
0600: Our team meets up and heads down to the docks. We have a three-hour boat ride through a maze of waterways to reach some of the villages. On either side are empty fields spotted with temporary shelters and tarp tents that we are told only weeks ago were filled with hundreds of houses and large rice paddies. Our translators tell us that it has been almost impossible for any outsiders to get into the area because of the flooding and continuous rain of the monsoon season. The smell of the dead bodies—of people and animals—that no one has been able to remove is unmistakable. It is always hard to see the suffering and destruction whether it is in Sri Lanka following the tsunami, Asia following an earthquake, Haiti following a hurricane, or here following the cyclone.
0900: The village we visit today lost 1,180 people, leaving only 350. They are all farmers and fisherman but have seen their livelihood, as well as their families, disappear in a matter of moments. The farmer’s rice paddies were destroyed by the salt water, and the few fishermen who were able to save their nets still refuse to fish because they spent weeks watching fish jump out of the water to bite the corpses that hung over the bank. As soon as our boat pulls up to land, we are met by all the villagers coming down to greet us.
Water, sanitation, and health are major issues after any disaster. Diseases can spread quickly if these are not taken care of. My job as the medical leader is to work with my team to assess these three issues. I work with a counselor and two translators, while our engineers do their assessments.
0930: We sit down with the village leader to speak to him about the cyclone. He has tears in his eyes as he remembers what happened. “It was dinner time when the cyclone tore into the village destroying every house and bringing a 12-foot flood of water down the river. Everyone was swept out of their houses and they grabbed for the trees. Those who could climbed up into the trees. My friend next to me was bitten by a cobra. He fell out of the tree and was gone so fast. It was soon dark and I could see and hear nothing. I just held on for hours until the morning came and the water had started going down.”
1100: A little girl squeezes up beside me. She smiles at me. I find out her name is Moe and that she is 8 years old. Her entire family was killed during the cyclone. She had grabbed the hand of her 2-year-old brother but was unable to hold on and he had been washed away. She follows me around the rest of our time here. The children always tug at my heart. They are vulnerable during disasters and often only the strong ones survive.
1200: My team is invited into one of the shelters for food. Despite their dire circumstances, the people still want to feed us. We take off our shoes, step inside, and sit down. The village leader uses his machete to cut the top of a huge coconut and hands it to me. The sweet milky liquid tastes good on such a hot day. Next, his wife brings us each a bowl of rice topped with something that looks like a cross between a slug and a shrimp. I say a quick prayer and dig in—I can feel the eyes of our hosts, and the entire village, looking through the bamboo at us. It has a weird taste, but I’m pretty good at swallowing unusual delicacies.
1300: After lunch, I examine the people who need medical attention. A woman hands me a baby and explains that she was found high in a tree tied to a branch with a cloth. I look down at her and can’t believe that she didn’t fall. The mother who was never found must have somehow tied her baby to the branch. This woman, who lost her own child in the cyclone, has taken her into her own small tent and just wanted me to look her over and make sure she was okay. The baby looks great and I hand her back to her new mother.
1530: Overall, the villagers are in good physical shape. I treat a few upper respiratory infections, injuries, and diarrhea. Thankfully, I don’t see any signs of measles, cholera, dysentery, pneumonia, malaria, or dengue fever. This is what everyone will be watching for over the coming weeks. The death tolls were so high that it was important that counseling take place immediately after the event, but this has not happened. Our counselor is able to hold a few group sessions, but more will be needed as soon as possible.
1600: It’s time to leave for the day. The tide is going out and we have a long journey back on the river.
1900: We arrive safely back at home base, have a quick dinner of rice, and then I’m off to write reports and send them home via my satellite hook-up.
2200: As I lie down to go to sleep under my mosquito netting, I think back over the day. The U.N. reported that 2008 had 321 disasters killing 240,000 people and affecting 212 million people. How thankful I am that people everywhere are donating their resources to allow me and other aid workers to be here sharing the love of Christ and helping people who have lost so much and suffered so long.
For an overview of MTW Disaster Response, see the companion article, We Want to be Jesus’ Hands and Feet.