As nurses held her down for an anti-tetanus shot into a deep gash on her belly, the baby shrieked in pain. But the lone doctor had little time to console the one-and-half-year old who had come under a slab of stone.
For, a long queue of seriously wounded — some with cracked skulls and torn limbs — waited their turn outside this tent hospital, the only working medical facility in this one-street Nepali town that trying to cope with last week’s deadly earthquake.
But it could hardly be called a field hospital. Flapping in the wind, the tent has no beds — the wounded sprawl on the ground on dirty sheets with dogs scampering around. No food is served. There is only basic medicine and no operation theatre.
Yet in parts of Nepal, where the earthquake-wounded have overwhelmed the official medical infrastructure, these tent hospitals are struggling to save lives with rudimentary medical equipment and skeletal staff.
“Here, we are treating 500-600 people a day,” says Nikee Shrestha, one of the four doctors manning the temporary hospital here.
“We need water, food and antibiotics. We fear that the secondary hazards such as diarrhoea will be greater than the primary hazards. We are not prepared for it.”
At these stripped down field hospitals, doctors carry out first aid, suturing and minor amputations. The more serious patients are sent to the main government hospital in Kathmandu which is so full that people are being treated on the street, says Shrestha.
As is common in this kind of natural disasters, the immediate medical challenge is to treat tens of thousands who have suffered cuts and broken bones. Nepal needs surgical supplies, sutures, IV fluids, oxygen, anesthetics and anti-inflammatory and anti-infection medicines as well as enough trained medics. There is hardly any trauma counselling either.
Health experts are concerned about what happens in the days and weeks to follow. Overcrowded, unsanitised camps and tent hospitals can trigger diarrheal diseases. Infection can also spread from bodies still to be retrieved from under the rubble."I have never dealt with something of this scale," says Deepak, a Nepali army major who uses only one name and is coordinating the government’s medical response in Sindhupalchowk district, which has reported the most number of deaths from last week’s earthquake.
A man is comforted by a relative as he recovers under a tented makeshift ward next to the government hospital in Chautara, Nepal. (Gurinder Osan/ HT Photo)
“If this is the situation in towns, then imagine what it must be in the villages which we haven’t been able to access so far.”
In contrast, field hospitals run by private charities and aid workers appeared more organised, although they have more staff and handle far lesser number of patients than the government facilities.
An Israeli-run field hospital opened near Kathmandu on Wednesday with 50 tonnes of medical supplies and a staff of 125. It will treat 200 people a day.
Back in Chautara, after Dr Shrestha finishes dressing the baby girl’s wound, her mother hobbles away with her down a terraced mountainside."She should be okay in a few days," says the doctor, turning away to look at her next patient.
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Full coverage: Nepal Earthquake