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At the heart of general practice since 1960

Surgery loans cost us thousands extra

Dr Christopher Jones left his practice to fly to tsunami-struck Sri Lanka ­

this is what he found

It started with a note in the coffee room at Poole casualty: 'Volunteers wanted for Sri Lankan tsunami disaster, leaving tomorrow.'

Twenty-four hours later, we had assembled a team of 10; five paramedics, four doctors and a counsellor. Rapid immunisations and antimalarials were needed for our own safety, and after collecting medical supplies from Dorset Ambulance headquarters, we left for Heathrow, where we bartered our fares down from £850 to £565.

By 4am we were in Colombo and had an early meeting with officials, where the logistical problems first became apparent; it would take two days for our qualifications to be checked. In the meantime, we visited a local pharmacy and negotiated £1,000-worth of medications, instruments and rehydration packs.

Our permission to work as a medical team was rushed through in three hours, and we started our journey south to Galle the same afternoon. En route, the devastation soon became apparent. Boats littered the shoreline and entire beachfront villages were in ruins with rubble everywhere. Galle itself took a huge hit, with thousands killed, and entire communities displaced.

We set up a field clinic at a camp five miles north, where 45 displaced families were located. It was a humbling experience dealing with people who had lost everything, but yet were so grateful for what we were doing.

We worked in four teams; a doctor with an interpreter assessing patients who were then treated by the paramedics at the dressing station/pharmacy.

The problems were mainly respiratory infections, wound care, dehydration as well as chronic medical conditions like diabetes, with around 120 patients being treated in the stifling heat before we transferred to a house in the backstreets of the city.

Here the conditions were much worse. The water supply was unsafe, and the smell of rotting bodies seemed to be everywhere. Throughout all their suffering and loss, the people did not complain, and their gratitude was overwhelming.

We heard stories of how people ran towards a train as the waves arrived; only for it to be tossed aside like a toy, killing 1,300 people. As the first wave drew back out to sea, the shipwrecks in Galle harbour appeared as ghost ships on the seabed, and people rushed to look at them.

The charity that had initially requested a medical team then sent us further south to Matara. But after a morning's work it became apparent that these communities had already been treated; two independent medical teams had been through in the previous 48 hours.

The problems associated with the disaster were also becoming murkier: foreign aid taking days to clear customs and supplies 'going missing'.

Our aim now was to try to get over to the east coast, where the devastation was worst, at Batticaloa and Trincomalee, but our efforts were thwarted by a lack of reliable transport and no resupply line.

An official from the Sri Lankan Red Cross then advised us that we were needed at three camps on the south-eastern coast around Hambantota, a four-hour truck ride from Galle.

We visited the first camp where some American volunteers had been giving psychological help to the families for the past week.

But it soon became obvious that our programme was unravelling; basically there was no requirement for an acute medical team.

We therefore made a decision to call it a day, rather than heading further eastwards chasing other medical teams looking for work. Seven days after setting out from the UK, we were home, physically and emotionally exhausted.

Logistical lessons do need to be learnt. A control-command and supply line is essential. Communication with local, national and international aid agencies, at a senior level, needs to be continuous.

But none of us had ever experienced this type of work or environment before, and all 10 of us would jump at the chance of doing it again in the future.

We were overwhelmed by the gratitude and help of the local people who had suffered so much and the support given to us by other foreign aid workers and news crews.

Christopher Jones is a GP in Poole, Dorset

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