Twenty Seconds in Nepal
In an eerie silence, suddenly the building began swaying gently from side to side, then began shaking violently.
An Eyewitness Account of the May 12 Earthquake
Twenty seconds. So much can happen in just 20 seconds. I was in the administrative office at Manmohan Memorial Teaching Hospital (MMTH) on May 12, meeting with Dr. Paul Ballinger, Dr. Allen Webb, and Dr. Ram Shrestha, the Director of the MMTH. In an eerie silence, suddenly the building began swaying gently from side to side, then began shaking violently. Dr. Webb laid down on the floor and positioned himself underneath the coffee table as best he could, and the others took cover or braced in the doorway as I did until the shaking stopped after about 20 seconds. Once we were stable, I ran toward the surgical ward where most of the patients were located and where the stairway exit leads down to the first floor. Most of the staff and volunteers had gone to lunch during the noon hour, so in the surgical ward were injured patients who were screaming, crying, or looking bewildered and unable to run out of the building as most of the ambulatory patients had done. I can’t imagine the emotional trauma of those recently severely injured patients having to experience this again.
The dedicated, exhausted and already overwhelmed staff nurses had begun moving patients out of the building. An elderly man, his left arm the size of an elephant’s leg from massive bandages wrapped around it, stood in the entryway near me, shaking uncontrollably and with a wide-eyed look of shock and terror on his worn face. I put my arm around his back to help support him and walked with him, talking gently, until two staff nurses came and took him from my arms to move him outside to safety. A young girl sat on the edge of her mom’s bed, holding her hand and looking around fearfully, tears streaming down her face. I touched her shoulder gently and whispered that it was going to be alright, encouraging her to stand so we could evacuate, as two more nurses came to help move the patients out at that moment. All of this transpired in a span of less than one minute.
Outside we established a meeting place for the Project HOPE volunteer team who were at the hospital, and contacted our group members who had gone out to lunch. Upon learning that everyone was ok, we decided to regroup at the emergency room. The volunteer team assembled quickly and assigned tasks to receive new incoming patients via the ER, to treat wounds and set casts, or to care for patients requiring ICU support. The volunteer team established an intake area, and “green,” “yellow” and “red” zones for patients depending on their triage status.
Within moments of the quake, injured patients began arriving at the hospital on foot, on the backs of motorcycles, in ambulances, vans and cars. There was not an overwhelming number of people, but they came in steadily individually or in small groups over the next several hours.
One young man came in with a deep laceration on his forehead and blood across his left temple. A staff nurse grabbed a suture kit while HOPE’s volunteer nurse Sama prepared and cleansed the area. Sama watched carefully and said she was studying their preferred suture technique so that she could do it the same way for other patients.
Two patients were from the inpatient floor who had fallen from their beds during the violent shaking of the quake. Many of the inpatients already had metal rods in their legs and arms from injuries sustained during the first quake, and had become re-injured during this second quake. I saw another HOPE nurse Ann treating, comforting and reassuring patients as she triaged them and cared for their wounds.
An elderly man who was an inpatient with a heart condition was moved to the ICU area, and a coordinated team of HOPE volunteers including Monica and Nick and MMTH staff surrounded his bed to provide care, working to maintain his oxygen levels.
There was a need for viable oxygen tanks for use in the ICU. The tanks stand more than 4 feet tall each with large round bases, and they had all crashed to the floor during the quake. After searching several wards for tanks with the pressure gauge and valve in-tact, it was found that most had either no valve or the oxygen was whistling out of the tanks through a damaged valve.
A beautiful baby was seen for severe burns when a cup of hot tea had spilled during the quake. I witnessed HOPE volunteer Monica stroking the baby’s hair and talking gently as the wounds were being treated.
Before dusk approached, our team divided into two groups, one to stay at the hospital treating patients, while other non-medical staff and volunteers returned to the hotel to grab gear from the hotel rooms of volunteers. In order to stay the night and support treatment, we needed to get the tents, tarps, sleeping bags, supplies of water, flashlights, head lamps, additional satellite phones and other equipment needed on site.
When the gear was loaded into the van a few minutes later, volunteers met up with GIK to secure the list of supplies that would be needed to support the influx of patients and to support care of the anticipated second wave of injuries. Personal Protective Equipment for volunteers were included (masks, gloves, etc) along with bandages, plaster for casting, gauze and other wound care materials.
We returned to the hospital location and began setting up the camp with tents, tarps, water, food, granola bars, flashlights etc. for the 8 volunteers. As darkness began setting in, we held a final safety briefing with the team, and returned to the hotel.
Along the way we saw new buildings that had collapsed, and the streets were crowded with people afraid to go back inside the buildings. More tents, which had begun decreasing in recent days, were seen all over the city.
Back at the hotel we held another briefing with the team on site, and turned in for the night. At approximately 2am there was a very strong but brief aftershock, lasting only a second or two, but strong enough to be felt in the hotel and in the field by the hospital. We checked in with each other and everyone is ok following the aftershock.
The dogs and birds are barking and cawing loudly all over the city as I write, as unsettled as we are following the aftershocks. Again, hoping that’s the end of it for tonight.
Learn more about Project HOPE’s earthquake relief efforts in Nepal.