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Back from Banda Aceh
In the wake of the tsunami, a nurse and her daughter aided survivors

Sun Chang took her nursing skills from Halsted 8 all the way to a refugee camp in Indonesia.
Late in December, shortly after the tsunami hit South Asia, Sun Chang, a nurse on Halsted 8, and her daughter Jenny were following the story on CNN. Sitting in the living room of their North Baltimore home, taking in the appalling scenes of destruction half a world away, the two looked at one another with a single thought: We have to go.

As luck would have it, days later, through a local church, the Changs learned of a relief organization that was sending short-term medical teams to Banda Aceh and isolated villages along the shores of northern Sumatra, Indonesia. Doctors were on board; nurses, however, were in short supply. Sun had always wanted to go on a medical mission; this was her chance. She worried, though, about leaving her Halsted 8 colleagues in the lurch. They quickly volunteered to cover her shifts. “You go in our place,” they told her. “Be our representative.”

Jenny’s schedule was more flexible. She is currently volunteering in the Harriet Lane Clinic on an AIDS study. The 2004 graduate of Boston College hopes to enter the Bloomberg School of Public Health in the fall.

In areas near the water, the destruction was staggering.

So it was that on Jan. 20, three weeks after the tsunami, the Changs arrived in Banda Aceh. This city of 400,000, along with the surrounding Aceh province on northern Sumatra Island, was the epicenter of the disaster. The area was in shambles: a third under water and mud, another third, completely wiped off the face of the earth. Every turn presented an apocalyptic tableau of death and destruction.

The Changs were there with Korean American Food for the Hungry International, a humanitarian organization. Along with doctors from the United States, their team consisted of nurses, a pharmacist and social worker from Korea. They stayed in a private home, which the organization had rented. Each day they would go out to the overflowing refugee camps to treat patients at makeshift clinics.

“We saw lots of bronchitis. Almost everyone had lacerations, and there were infections, skin rashes and otitis media [ear infections],” said Sun. Contrary to World Health Organization warnings, diarrhea and fever were few and far between. Many people had muscle pain from being hit by the water. One of the doctors was able to do acupuncture, an entirely new therapy to the Sumatrans. “They loved it,” said Sun.

Nama? Umur? Sakit apa? Jenny had to learn Indonesian overnight. At one of the camps, 13-year-old Rini, center, helped translate.
One man was too weak to come to the clinic. Sun found him dehydrated with severe abdominal pain. His blood pressure was just 60 over 48; his eyes rolled back in his head. She and the doctors gave him an intravenous bolus of normal saline. That night, consumed with worry, Sun and one of the doctors returned to the camp—an hour-long journey on foot in the dark—only to find that the patient had slipped. They administered another IV. When they returned the next morning, the patient was alert and sitting up. It was cause for celebration. Then and there, they broke out the soup and porridge.

Jenny, meanwhile, was in charge of triage. She registered patients and sent them on to the doctors. Each doctor, or station, had an Indonesian translator, but Jenny, working the front desk, was pretty much on her own. “I had to learn Indonesian overnight.” She mastered the basics; beyond that, it was dicey. “People would come in and point to their heads. You never really knew if it was a headache, or dizziness, or what,” said Jenny. At one camp, a 13-year-old girl named Rini, who had spent the previous year doggedly studying English, sat by her side from 9 to 5 three days straight, helping out in broken, but understandable English.

“What I did not know when I went to Indonesia was how Muslim it was,” said Jenny. “Most of the camps were on lawns of mosques and schools, and at the appropriate times, we heard prayer throughout the day.” She and Sun had been advised to cover themselves and wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts, but Jenny could not tolerate the latter. The temperature hovered at around 100 degrees; the humidity was 100 percent.

The children of Banda Aceh, here at a refugee camp with Jenny, loved the camera.

The work was nonstop and tiring. On average, Sun and Jenny got only about four hours of sleep a night. And yet, they would not have traded the experience for anything in the world. Both are passionate about international health. The mission provided a window onto this world and an opportunity to meet other like-minded relief workers.

Today, Sun cannot forget the generosity of her fellow nurses on Halsted 8 who helped make her trip possible. They had asked her to go and work on their behalf. She did not disappoint them.

—Anne Bennett Swingle

From the Bayview ED, Three Nurses Dispense Relief

In Indonesia, from left, Brian Wahl, Audrey Rutkowski, Alex Vu and Emily Seay.
Among those taking part in the tsunami international relief effort from Johns Hopkins were Audrey Rutkowski, Emily Seay and Brian Wahl, nurses from the Emergency Department at Johns Hopkins Bayview. They went to Indonesia with the International Rescue Committee. Alex Vu, an SOM emergency medicine physician affiliated with a joint academic program between the Department of Emergency Medicine and the Department of International Health at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, went with them.

The four arrived in Indonesia about two weeks after the tsunami hit and went their separate ways, each on a team with a doctor, child protection worker and environmental health expert in water and sanitation. They would spend four weeks in various ruined regions of the country. Seay’s journey took her to remote villages where she lived in refugee camps with only a dirt hole as her restroom. Because measles had begun to spread, each of the nurses helped establish vaccination campaigns. Instead of intensive nursing, they did mostly public health work. “People had only minor injuries,” said Rutkowski. “The others, sadly, were dead.”

“This was the most important work I’ve ever done as a nurse,” said Seay. “An experience like this will change your view forever—as a nurse and a human being.”

 

 

 

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