Cuenca medical volunteers work under extreme conditions; they fear an epidemic and the ‘smell of death’ in the air

Apr 19, 2016 | 6 comments

Dozens of Cuenca nurses and doctors are working under a tarpaulin in the parking lot of the Rodriguez Zambrano Hospital in Manta. The hospital, which is part of Ecuador’s Social Security health care system, was irreparably damaged during Saturday’s 7.8 earthquake and had to be abandoned.

Cuenca medical volunteers at work.

Cuenca medical volunteers at work.

Some conduct triage duties on incoming earthquake victims. Others stitch up cut victims and perform minor surgeries. Surrounded by piles of rubble, they work amid the screams of pain and cries of anguish, the whir of helicopter props and the rumble of diesel engines powering electric generators and heavy equipment clearing the remains of nearby houses. On the pavement beneath them are dried pools of blood. On one side of the work area, three bodies are covered with sheets.

For Johana Riera and her fellow Cuenca volunteers, it is a scene they have never experienced before, or even imagined. “It can’t be described,” she says. “All you can do is work and there is more than you can handle.”

One of Riera’s co-workers describes the scene as “nightmare circumstances.”

chl quake SS hops manta comcerio

What’s left of Rodriguez Zambrano Hospital in Manta.

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Most of the victims being treated come from the hard-hit Tarqui district of Manta. As they come in, says Riera, they are examined and classified by need of treatment. Some are told to wait while others require immediate attention. Because rescue workers don’t know where to put them, the dead are brought in with the living.

“On Sunday afternoon, a rescue truck brought us 12 people,” Riera says. “Seven were dead and five were alive.”

Like other health care workers, Riera worries about the accumulation of bodies around the medical treatment area as well as in Tarqui, where a number of houses have collapsed. “This could lead to epidemics and we are talking to the police about it, trying to get help.”

She adds: “Everywhere, we are smelling death.”

Further north, in Pedernales, Cuenca psychologist Karina Chérrez works with a team counseling the families of the dead. “They want to know how this could happen so suddenly,” she says. “One minute their daughter is alive and the next minute she is dead. How do you answer that?”

She says it can be even harder to counsel those whose family members are buried in fallen houses. “If you know someone has died, you can start the process of healing. When you don’t know if they are dead or alive, there is nothing but anguish,” she says.

For Chérrez, the working environment is hardly conducive for providing grief counseling. She is in grandstands of the Pedernales footall stadium. The field in front of her serves as the city’s collection point for bodies.

Like the other volunteers, Chérrez has had little sleep since Sunday, following the 14-hour trip from Cuenca. “I’m tired but when can I sleep? If I lie down for a nap, I only think of the work to be done. It’s better to keep working.”

 

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