Lifestyle

Islanders treat tsunami victims

By DeAnn Rossetti

Pediatrician Dan MacDougall is used to having lab equipment, x-rays and a full spectrum of medications on hand when he cares for his patients. In Indonesia, while administering to victims of December's devastating tsunami, he had only a stethoscope, an otoscope and his medical acumen.

``I had the extra burden of trying to diagnose sick infants and children without benefit of any lab,'' said MacDougall. ``I couldn't send them to the local hospital because it was a cramped, dirty room with no equipment and no experts in caring for children. We had to rely on ourselves.''

Serial humanitarians, MacDougall and his wife, Lindsay, have returned to Mercer Island from their four-week mission with Northwest Medical Teams, a non-profit humanitarian aid organization working to reduce mental and physical suffering in the Pacific Northwest and around the world. The MacDougalls were part of a group of medical volunteers sent to the tiny village of Lamno, near Banda Aceah, on the northwest tip of Sumatra. An estimated 5,000 of the village's residents are missing since the tsunami.

MacDougall and his wife, a pathologist and primary care physician, worked side by side, traveling from one refugee camp to another assisting children and adults with health issues in makeshift clinics that were often nothing more than straw mats laid out on an open field.

MacDougall's team saw up to 300 children a day, most of whom needed help with chronic ailments such as malaria and dehydrating dysentery, diseases associated with poor water quality and primitive living conditions. To stem the spread of malaria, Northwest Medical Teams sprayed pockets of standing water with chemicals to kill mosquitoes, which carry the disease.

The tsunami's destruction was astonishing, MacDougall said.

``Large housing neighborhoods were just gone, with rubble piled two- and three-feet deep. It was sad to think of how many people had lived there and how many quickly met their death,'' he said.

The couple labored 16 or more hours a day, seven days a week, diagnosing and treating children and adults from early morning until dark.

The first wave of Northwest Medical Teams had already dealt with the critically ill. MacDougall's group was concerned mostly with treating chronic illness and offering solace to victims.

``We put a lot of emotional energy into our visits because they needed emotional support and open ears, often more than medicine,'' he said. ``The people had been stressed and distressed by the losses that occurred to them, from loss of possessions to loss of children and family members ... there was a lot of sadness.''

The MacDougalls travelled with a team of three doctors and several nurses, including a nurse practitioner. Also on hand was a nurse trained in psychology who listened to survivors' stories and tried to help them recover from the trauma of the tsunami.

The team's job was to organize and work in mobile clinics that traveled to three sites on a regular basis and also to one static clinic, where it would treat dysentery. The nine-person team also was taken to the homes of people too weak to come to the treatment sites.

A physician since 1971, MacDougall said traveling the world, treating those who wouldn't otherwise get quality medical care has been a calling for him. He said he went to medical school to learn to help people.

``It's a selfish thing, really,'' said MacDougall. ``But it gives you a good feeling to experience these places not as a tourist, but as someone working on the streets. I shared eye-to-eye contact with people. That makes it more personal and it's what draws you back in.''

This was the MacDougalls' 12th humanitarian trips. The husband and wife team have administered to Mexico City earthquake victims, to Kosovo refugees and to Mozambique flood victims.

``We've lived and slept in huts, crummy hotels and boats,'' said Dan MacDougall. ``In this instance we lived in one room with another couple, and each couple had a `bug hut' or mosquito tent, which was the extent of your privacy.''

There were many emotional moments during the month in Lamno. MacDougall said his team had the opportunity to really listen to people's stories about their experience with the tsunami.

One man -- a leader in his village-- said 15 people in his family and fishermen in his village had perished in the disaster, and boats had been lost.

``Sixty years of his life had washed away,'' said MacDougall. ``I told him that as a leader he had an opportunity to find young men to help him build new boats and start over ... I think I gave him comfort and some hope. That's what we were there to do.''

The MacDougalls said that if there's another disaster somewhere, they'll rearrange their busy schedules, dig money from savings and go once more to diagnose and treat -- even without proper equipment.

``If I didn't feel the way I do, and feel their pain, and understand and absorb some of it, I'd have missed the reason you go in the first place,'' Dan MacDougall said. ``They know when you care. ... You take on part of their heartache and it makes you stronger.''

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