14 Nov 2013

A desktop C-section in the wreckage of Haiyan

The operating theatre is the mayoral office in Tanauan. Two knee-hole desks shoved together with a cloth on top – the operating table.

The ceiling is a blue tarpaulin. The roof lifted off by the typhoon last Friday.  Rainwater still drips through, even so.

On the desk, the patient.

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“OK guys,” says the medic Dr Marti Kim from California to her team: “Quiet now please – right now.”

And the incision is made across a young woman’s lower abdomen.

Yards away across the hall a small girl urinates. The smell of human diarrhoea is unmistakeable as well as overpowering. A few yards from the operation a man groans, the wound in his leg seeping and infected.

But there’s good news after a short while. Raised from the vicinity of that incision, one little Abigail, product of one of the world’s less well-equipped “hospitals”.

‘We just ran out’

But when the mayor’s office is almost the only building left still standing in a whole town of 50,000  –  it is the “hospital”.

“Abigail’s fine,” says Dr Kim, who has just performed her eleventh desktop Caesarean section here. “But mum, Aventura – I’m not sure what happens if she starts bleeding. There’s infection. We need to get her to Manila somehow and fast.”

Yet incredibly, this entire team of medics anaesthetists, general and orthopaedic surgeons – the whole team – will shut down today if they can’t get new medical supplies.

“That’s that – we just ran out of anaesthetic on that C-section.”

It encapsulates the rather disconnected way in which aid is or is not reaching the poorest people whose need is greatest.

“We can’t get resupply at the moment. It’s crazy. They’re queuing out the door every day but that’s it, supplies are gone.”

‘Worse than Japan’

As we leave, the mayor leads off a delegation to Tacloban a few miles distant. The plan is to locate a medi-aid team with “nothing to do”.

Well, given the state of these obliterated towns, finding under-employed international medics looks a long shot.

Fixing the roof over that makeshift operating theatre is former British serviceman, now search-and-rescue volunteer for Rubicon, Chris Wharton.

“I was in Japan after the tsunami and this is worse. Far worse in my opinion,” he tells me.

“Why?” I asked.

“Not because of the scale of the disaster but the type of response. In Japan, the entire nation seemed to get behind the situation and fast. I don’t see anything like that here.”


Progress in these wrecked towns and the stricken provincial capital Tacloban will be far different from Japan.

It looks like this – instead of just leaving all the bodies at the roadside – today they provided body-bags.

Progress – but slow.

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