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 May 11, 2005
Doctor: Tsunami Damage 'Like a War Zone'
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By Amanda Gardner, HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, Jan. 6 (HealthDayNews) -- On the day after Christmas, as water devastated much of South Asia, Dr. Roshini Rajapaksa sat in a hotel room in Colombo, Sri Lanka, gazing out at a perfectly calm sea.

Rajapaksa, a gastroenterologist with New York University, and her parents, also both doctors, live in the United States. But they make an annual pilgrimage to Sri Lanka, her parents' native country, for the holidays.

Nothing seemed out of the ordinary that morning until the phone rang, a family friend calling to tell them there had been some sort of tidal wave.

Judging by the evidence of the ocean before her, Rajapaksa wondered what the caller was talking about. But local news reports throughout the day assured her that the friend's report was all too true: While Colombo was spared, the angry waves wreaked havoc on the country's southern and eastern coastlines.

The tsunami, the result of a massive undersea earthquake, swept over South Asia on the morning of Dec. 26. Sri Lanka has had the second highest number of casualties, with more than 30,000 people dead. In Indonesia's Aceh province, which was much closer to the epicenter of the quake, about 100,000 people have died.

And while the overall death count from about a dozen countries hovers near 150,000, experts fear that the disaster's toll could go even higher as a result of post-tsunami epidemics. Cholera, dysentery and other illnesses lurk as ever-present fears in areas where clean water and sanitation systems have been wiped out, as they have in areas washed over by the tsunami.

Rajapaksa and her parents were only too aware of all of these threats.

That same day, the family marshaled its contacts both in Sri Lanka and in the United States. Doctors in Sri Lanka provided lists of needed supplies, including antibiotics, bandages, sterile dressings, gloves and surgical blades. Rajapaksa then contacted colleagues at the Sri Lanka Medical Association in New York City to round them up. "They were very basic things, really basic medical instruments and materials," Rajapaksa said.

Access problems and general confusion prevented Rajapaksa and her parents from ministering to people directly until the fourth day after the tsunami.

Then, they rented a van and headed from the unscathed capital into a wasteland of devastation and despair. A drive that should have taken three hours instead took five.

"There were so many detours. Roads were destroyed or disrupted by fallen trees. There was debris," she recalled. "We saw a lot of rubble, a lot of blown cars. It looked like a war zone or a tornado, cars going into second-story house windows, things that you would just never believe. Clothes were strewn over rubble. Everything was completely decimated."

Rajapaksa could not even name villages she passed through because there were none left. Instead, there were just makeshift "health camps" in whatever temples, schools and churches remained. Many of the people were there for shelter as much as for medical care.

That day, Rajapaksa tended to the walking wounded in three different camps, people who had survived the wave with less than life-threatening injuries. Most of the critically ill people had already been transported to other facilities.

"The basic things we saw were wounds that needed to be dressed and cleaned, people with head injuries, neck injuries, people showing us their wounds and asking how to take care of them," Rajapaksa said.

People had lost family members and, Rajapaksa said, "a lot of them were in a complete state of shock."

One little boy, about 7 years old, approached Rajapaksa with a leg wound, which he sustained while running away from the towering wall of water. When Rajapaksa asked him what had happened, he replied simply that his father had died.

"He said it very matter-of-factly," Rajapaksa said.

Rajapaksa, now back in New York City, is working with the Sri Lanka Medical Association to rustle up medical supplies to help prevent any epidemics.

"There is, unfortunately, a large potential for epidemics of things like cholera and other intestinal illnesses from contaminated water and lack of sanitation and good hygiene," she said. "They're crowded. They don't have facilities to wash hands, to boil water, and their drinking water is contaminated. It's just a breeding ground for these kinds of illnesses."

As she recalled the days spent in Sri Lanka, Rajapaksa said the image that stood out the most is that of a woman about her age and also visiting from the United States, who died in the disaster.

More information

The International Committee of the Red Cross (www.icrc.org ) has more on the tsunami disaster relief effort.

SOURCES: Roshini Rajapaksa, M.D., attending gastroenterologist, New York University School of Medicine, New York City; photo courtesy of Roshini Rajapaksa

Copyright � 2005 ScoutNews, LLC. All rights reserved.

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Doctor: Tsunami Damage 'Like a War Zone'
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