A Medical Student’s Encounter with Disaster

a medical student's encounter with disaster

25th April 2015

A 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal on 25th April 2015, affecting 35 of the 77 districts of Nepal and causing a death toll of over 8000 lives with 22,309 people reported as injured and an estimated 2.8 million displaced. The following article is based on the first-hand experience of a then fourth-year medical student from Patan Academy of Health Sciences, a tertiary care center in Lalitpur District, one of the worst-hit districts in Nepal.

Rescue work following 7.8 Richter scale earthquake. Image by Omar Havana via https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2015/04/nepal-after-the-earthquake/391481/
Rescue work following 7.8 Richter scale earthquake. Image by Omar Havana via https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2015/04/nepal-after-the-earthquake/391481/

Reflection

25th April 2015, started off as a casual Saturday morning. At the boy’s hostel, everyone was preparing for the inter-medical college football tournament which was to start off that day, until the first jolt changed plans for the whole day and many more days to come. Our first response was to rush out of the hostel and make sure our family members and friends were okay. Just as all of us were frantically, unsuccessfully so, trying to contact our families, a friend of mine came running and informed that all medical students were to go to the hospital with their aprons. We had not even considered going to the hospital until my friend arrived; maybe because none of us had faced such a situation before or because we were yet to come back to our right state of mind.

Students ready to receive disaster victims. Image by Online Khabar via http://www.pahs.edu.np/patan-hospital-earthquake-disaster-relief-fund/photo-gallery/
Students ready to receive disaster victims. Image by Online Khabar via http://www.pahs.edu.np/patan-hospital-earthquake-disaster-relief-fund/photo-gallery/

As we reached the hospital, it was already flooded with injured patients from the disaster. Everyone started doing what they could. Some started giving analgesics to people who were agonized by the pain, some started talking and trying to calm down people who were on the verge of hyperventilation, some took gauge pieces and pressed it against the bleed on people’s head and some helped in patient transportation. There were a lot of people doing a lot of things, but neither was I in very observant state of mine nor could I recall enough now to mention the minute details. One thing I remember with absolute clarity is that me and my friends (as I found out in the after talks) forgot that we were trying to contact our families when we were called.

Students providing wound care. Image via http://www.pahs.edu.np/patan-hospital-earthquake-disaster-relief-fund/photo-gallery/
Students providing wound care. Image via http://www.pahs.edu.np/patan-hospital-earthquake-disaster-relief-fund/photo-gallery/
Medical students providing Tetanus Toxoid injection to victims. Image via http://www.pahs.edu.np/patan-hospital-earthquake-disaster-relief-fund/photo-gallery/
Medical students providing Tetanus Toxoid injection to victims. Image via http://www.pahs.edu.np/patan-hospital-earthquake-disaster-relief-fund/photo-gallery/

A lady was lying on the floor, covered with mud, she wasn’t moving at all. My friend and I suspected she was seriously injured but didn’t see any obvious wound from where we were standing. We went near and tried to feel the carotid pulse. Never in my life had I even remotely imagined that one day I will confuse whether or not the carotid pulse is present. But there I was. I didn’t feel the pulse, but I was reluctant to admit that she didn’t have one; so we decided to ask one of our teachers. We did and got the obvious answer. Now we were to put the black tag on her and take her to the black area. She was the first to be taken to the black triage. Before putting her down from the stretcher, we took the pulse again. It was one of my first encounters with death declaration.

I came out of the front door and was among a lot of injured patients; nerve wrecked students and doctors trying to help people in the best possible way. It was then that most of us remembered that we hadn’t contacted out families yet; maybe sadness had taken over our survival instinct or maybe we were learning to keep our professional duties up ahead. This continued for the day and the next day was nearly the same; only a little more organized. Basically, the name of the game for the couple of days that followed was help in all that you are capable of.

Apart from being the most traumatizing experience of our life until now, this earthquake also taught us some lessons and profoundly so. I knew that survival instinct takes over everything at first when you perceive a threat to our life; however, once you are just out of the instinct and see before you, the circumstance that you are trained to deal with, you prioritize things and work in the line of your training.

Survival instinct takes over everything at first when you perceive a threat to our life...

Students raising awareness to prevent possible outbreaks. Image via http://www.pahs.edu.np/patan-hospital-earthquake-disaster-relief-fund/photo-gallery/
Students raising awareness to prevent possible outbreaks. Image via http://www.pahs.edu.np/patan-hospital-earthquake-disaster-relief-fund/photo-gallery/

a need for disaster curriculum to be rigorously taught to every medical student.

One thing that I realized while trying to help the casualties that will help me every time I sit to study is: no matter how much you memorize stuff until you really understand something well, you won’t be able to use the knowledge when it is most needed. The disaster drill that we performed a few months before the disaster helped us make sense of triage, proper transportation and of what was happening. I realized the importance of training and keeping myself updated on skills that we need at times when we are less likely to think rationally. Also, I felt a need for disaster curriculum to be rigorously taught to every medical student. Medical students formed an important workforce during this disaster. Having occurred on the weekend, medical students were the most readily and adequately available resource. However, with limited knowledge and skill, medical students left to work unsupervised are prone to cause harm to themselves and patients; hence proper training and work delegation are required so that they can become a better-skilled workforce.

This was yet another example for me to ponder and reinforce upon myself that not everything will go on as planned; hence, I need to keep myself updated and work on my improvising skills. This event as devastating as it was also made me feel proud of what I am training to become and instilled in me more passion towards my profession.

Further Reading

  • World Health Organization, Regional Office for South-East Asia. Nepal earthquake 2015: an insight into risks: a vision for resilience. New Delhi, India: World Health Organization, SEARO; 2016. Available from: https://apps.who.int/iris/handle/10665/255623
  • Sheppard PS, Landry MD. Lessons from the 2015 earthquake (s) in Nepal: implication for rehabilitation. Disability and Rehabilitation. 2016 Apr 23;38(9):910-3.
  • Nepal earthquake of 2015 – link

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