Why Healthcare Was Such an Important Part of Relief Work During Kerala Floods

'One person didn’t even know if her spouse had escaped to safety. Is it any wonder then, that her blood pressure level was dangerously elevated?'

Kochi: As the rain started pouring down, I sat glued to my TV watching the updates from ground zero – Idukki. Within a day, the havoc from the unrelenting rain came close to my house in Kochi. I’d seen images of relief camps around the world, and now, there were hundreds of such camps in my homeland. I wanted to do my bit to help my land. But I didn’t know where to start. Simply put, in the initial hours of the flooding, I felt useless.

The following morning, I drove down to the collection centre in the city’s indoor stadium hoping that I could be useful as a volunteer. What I saw was simply incredible. In fact, there is no better word that can describe what unfolded over the next few days. There were hundreds of volunteers doing all sorts of tasks ranging from heavy lifting to sorting. Every few minutes, a car would stop by to drop off relief materials like water, food supplies and clothes. But my desire to be useful in some capacity was turned down. There were already too many volunteers at the collection centre.

Food being prepared at a relief camp. Credit: Author provided

I am a doctor – an oncologist and haematologist, to be precise. It’s been years since I practised primary care – except in a consulting capacity for my relatives. And it’s been ten years since I practiced medicine in India. I just relocated to India and have not even joined a hospital yet. Could I do anything in an individual capacity as a medical professional? I had my doubts. Still, I wanted to do something.

Relief material being distributed. Credit: Author provided

On August 17, at around 8 pm, I got a phone call from an acquaintance enquiring whether I could go to a relief camp in Thrippunithura near Kochi city where people from Paravur and Varappuzha were camping. My wife, who is an endocrinologist, and I drove to the camp site within half an hour and were bewildered to see an army of volunteers helping out in various capacities. We met two young doctors and an elderly doctor who were running the medical clinic. We offered help, but the government health inspector suggested that we go to a newly begun campsite at a church hall in Karingachira near Thrippunithura.

It was a newly opened camp. Around 150 people had just been moved to a church hall. But they didn’t have a doctor. Within half an hour of us reaching there at (around 10 pm), three other doctors arrived – one was a cardiologist in a private hospital, another doctor was a orthopaedic surgeon who had come to visit his family and the third doctor was a newly minted one. Together, all of us arranged the medicines we had on site and started seeing patients.

Credit: Author provided

The first two patients I saw were middle-aged women. To my surprise, both had their blood pressure at extremely dangerous levels (systolic blood pressure above 200 mm Hg) placing them at a high risk for stroke. I was confused whether the blood pressure apparatus was faulty. I asked for a volunteer so I could make sure the apparatus was working. My volunteer happened to be the municipality chairperson. She was supervising the relief camp. We often blame politicians for all that ails our society. But at the local panchayat level, I saw them leading their people with tremendous zeal.

After confirming that the apparatus was indeed working, I turned back to my patients. Not surprisingly, I found both of them sobbing. They had lost everything in the raging waters. One person didn’t even know if her spouse had escaped to safety. Is it any wonder then, that their blood pressure levels were dangerously elevated? The stress that the affected individuals go through is something none can relate to.

Within no time, we were surrounded by patients of all age groups – toddlers with fever and cough, young men with body pain after working hard in the rescue efforts, middle-aged women who skipped their home medications for diabetes and high blood pressure for several days. Amidst all the chaos, I noticed that the elderly were unfazed by the situation. I asked an 85-year-old lady if she had a hard time sleeping. “I have seen so many hardships in life. I’ll overcome this too,” she replied.

Over the next few days, wherever we went, we saw people facing the challenge with resolute courage and determination. At a relief camp in a college in Kakkanad, a suburb of Kochi, I met a junior health inspector who was manning the medical camp day and night. She was also a resident of the camp. One cannot tell she lost all her life’s earnings if one sees her working. In fact, her greatest grief was the fact that she lost her vast collection of books: “I cannot even bear the thought of seeing the books when I go back home.” Despite the incredible challenges people faced, they were remarkably kind to each other and also policed themselves. At a place where clothes were being distributed, I saw a son berate his father for taking an extra lungi.

Volunteers at a relief camp. Credit: Author provided

You may have already read about the heroes without capes – our fishermen, our armed and police forces. But what I saw were ordinary men and women who stepped out of their comfort zones with an intense desire to assist their fellow brethren. I saw them in a group of engineering college professors from Cherthala who tirelessly travelled to the most unreached parts of Paravur to give relief materials, in an industrial designer who ran a relief camp for several days without an iota of fatigue on his face, in a group of youngsters in a church in Palarivattom who hit above their weight and sent in relief supplies in trucks, in the IT professionals who frequently visited our camp to ask if we were short on any supplies, and in my school alumni WhatsApp group which coordinated water supply within an hour of when I told them that a place in Paravur lacks clean drinking water.

We are facing a tremendous challenge to rebuild the state of Kerala. I will not remember this year for the devastating floods that wrecked the state. Instead, I will remember these extraordinary acts of compassion, kindness and bravery of ‘ordinary’ people. It will inspire us to be better citizens of God’s own country.

Dr Aju Mathew is an oncologist and haematologist, and is director of Kerala Cancer Care, a non-governmental organisation. He is also faculty at University of Kentucky Cancer Center in the United States, and an adjunct faculty at Kasturba Medical College of Manipal University. Twitter: @ajumathew_ Email: [email protected].