Helping hands head for Indonesia - Doctors will volunteer in Sumatra

By Wendy Giroux

Drs. Dan and Lindsay MacDougall left last week for a tiny village in Indonesia, where they will work for three weeks in a makeshift medical clinic.

The Island residents are volunteers with Northwest Medical Teams at a settlement of 8,000 people called Lamno. An estimated 5,000 of the village's people are missing since December's tsunami.

``One of the reasons we do this is to experience other cultures. ... You get a feel for how their culture is -- some cultures are friendlier, softer than others,'' Dan said.

``It's a way to share,'' Lindsay added.

Dan, 60, is a pediatrician, and Lindsay, 58, is a pathologist. Both work for Group Health. The couple has lived on the Island since 1982, and raised two daughters and a son here.

``We've done these things before -- but they're different each time,'' Dan said.

This is the 12th or 13th humanitarian trip they have taken together; Dan went on another two trips by himself. They have been to Mexico City after the 1985 earthquake, the Marshall Islands, Guatemala, Laos, Liberia, the Somalia/Kenya border to work with refugees, Albania to care for Kosovo refugees, Mozambique to work with flood victims, the Thai/Burma border and twice to Peru.

The village of Lamno is near Banda Aceh, on the northwest tip of Sumatra.

The MacDougalls and the rest of their team will be responsible for running a small clinic and also for visiting a nearby refugee camp.

``Our primary responsibility is to go in and do as much medicine as we can,'' Dan said.

But physical wounds are not the only trauma survivors face.

``We're providing basic medical care and providing someone who cares,'' he said. ``A lot of times, these people are sick, and they're distressed. A lot of times, they just need someone to sit with them, let them cry on their shoulder and then you let them go. ... We'll be seeing people who are stressed, grieving like heck and have lost all their possessions and/or their family.''

Several of the team members are psychiatric nurses who will help survivors.

THE FIRST NORTHWEST Medical Teams group to visit Lamno set up a shelter in a small hut. There will be Thermarest mattresses to sleep on, mosquito nets to sleep under, a hole toilet out back and some tarps strung up out front for the ``clinic,'' Lindsay said.

``It's typical for what's there -- you just adjust to their way of life,'' she said.

A typical day for medical volunteers is often anything but typical. They usually start by about 7:30 a.m. and work as late as possible.

``They're pretty long days -- usually you quit by dark because you've got to be in a secure place,'' Dan said.

It's emotionally and physically draining work, but worth it.

``We have the skills and education and we want to share that,'' Dan said. ``We're just glad to join other people.''

The first few days, medical personnel are working long hours and battling jet lag. Add to that the difficult living conditions and stress of the job, and team members can get a little cranky, the MacDougalls said.

``We (Dan and I) like working as a pair,'' Lindsay said. ``We try to support each other and work through the team's problems.''

Three to four weeks is about the longest period most volunteers can handle.

BY THIS POINT, most of the traumatic injuries have likely been cared for. The MacDougalls and their team will face more illnesses such as respiratory epidemics, skin infections and things caused by water conditions.

``In these areas, where people are living close together, we can help stop the spread of diarrheal and respiratory illnesses to keep them alive until they can get back home,'' Lindsay said.

In cases where they might wish they could order a whole series of labwork, doctors and nurses do what they can for patients and either send them on their way or, occasionally, send them on to hospitals if there are any nearby.

``We're there to patch up what's happened. We're not there to do first-world, fantastic medicine,'' Dan said.

He told the story of a baby he delivered on his trip to Mozambique, with only the tools and supplies they had carried on their backs for miles. Dan and other doctors were joking about whether the oxygen was on and the warming table adjusted -- and other tools they would have if they were helping a patient back home.

``Here we are in a mud hut, using a flashlight to see,'' he said.

The delivery went OK, but the baby wouldn't breathe.

``Unfortunately, we were in an area with a high concentration of AIDS, and the mother had genital lesions. I saw a syringe in a bucket, pulled it over ... and shoved some air in.''

The baby started breathing.

``Sometimes, you can pull off a miracle.''

Teams have to watch out for their own health and safety on the trips as well. The MacDougalls have had many immunizations over the years, so they only needed a few updates on shots.

But there are other dangers.

``You've got to be careful where you walk -- watch out for snakes and other things,'' Lindsay said.

Most aid workers killed while volunteering die in auto accidents, Dan said.

``We've dodged everything from bad cars to bad roads to walking a road through a minefield in the past,'' he said. ``When we were in Liberia, when we first arrived, we were everyone's best friend. ... By the time we left, we were leaving with guns pointed at us.''

FELLOW ISLANDER Dick Frederick is executive director of Northwest Medical Teams' Western Washington office.

``It's incredible the people who are willing to sacrifice time and energy to help people who are living on the border of despair,'' Frederick said.

Six Northwest Medical Teams groups had already been in Thailand, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. The MacDougall's team and three others left last week.

In addition to providing medical care, the organization will teach residents there to be trauma counselors, help restock clinics and fix up damaged hospitals.

So far, Northwest Medical Teams has received more than $7 million in donations to help tsunami victims.

``The need for recovery and getting back to productive, self-sustaining life is going to take years because of the magnitude of the damage,'' Frederick said. ``We're committed to the long-term over there.''

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