In October, Hurricane Stan dumped several days of torrential rains on the Central American Nation of Guatemala. At one thirty in the morning, October 5, 2005, the rains caused the earth to break apart from the mountain tops and tumble down. Without warning, several tons of mud slid down the mountainside, destroying the villages below. The slides took random paths, destroying tin huts and burying solid structures while leaving other structures untouched.
TorontoParamedic Dave Hutcheon innoculates a child for tetanus
The town of Panabaj was home to 3,500 people. Residents awoke from the explosive sound of the mudslides, the sounds of their neighbors screaming for help as they were being buried alive, desperately trying to hand their children off to safety.
When daylight illuminated the damage, most of the town had been destroyed. Several mountain towns across the country suffered the same fate. Thousands perished. Hundreds are still buried in the destroyed villages despite the frantic efforts of volunteers trying to dig out the survivors. The true death toll will never be known. After 72 hours, the government declared these town's mass graves.
The slides wreaked havoc on the nation, leaving more than a quarter of a million people homeless, destroying schools and clinics, and disabling water purification systems. The displaced seek refuge in church shelters, with loved ones, or slept on the road. The refugees sleeping on the roads became infected with fungals.
The close quarters of the shelters, combined with the lack of clean drinking water, is leading to outbreaks of diseases. People are drinking from water sources contaminated with feces and the remains of villagers swept away by the mudslides.
White lime dust is sprayed on the mud filled home
turned grave to prevent the outbreak of disease
GlobalMedic dispatched a rapid response team to help those in need. Our team, comprised of Toronto paramedics and police officers, responded on the seven-day assignment, carrying an EMS supplies, an inflatable field clinic, emergency medicines, water purification units and chemicals to use with them.
The team was up most of the night checking and packing the gear. We left at 5 a.m. Despite my best efforts, I couldn't sleep. This will be the fourth international deployment I've led this year, but I still get the jitters. Responding to an international disaster is not unlike flying through traffic to a cardiac arrest. The rush is still there, but it's longer, more drawn out and filled with frustrating episodes of constant aggravation.
A Global Medic Team Member drinks from our clean
water source showing locals that the water is now safe
Marvin Austin is an eight year veteran of Toronto EMS. He works out of Canada's busiest station house. A compassionate and deeply spiritual man, Austin is eager to accompany us and help his native homeland, a land he left many years ago during a time of war to seek out a better life in Canada. A life he now has.
Austin has helped coordinate our ground team through his sister and brother in law. Our ground team is comprised of three music teachers and an ex-music teacher turned insurance salesman. This is not the typical military type of muscular backup one would normally want when lugging 1,700 pounds of gear through Central America. But they prove to be worth their weight in gold.
Our team has been assigned by the central coordination agency to the town of Santiago Atitlan, near Panabaj. This region is infamous for the massacres of Mayan natives by government death squads. There's a great deal of apprehension and fear on the part of the locals when dealing with the government, let alone the military. The government feels it best to have foreign civilian teams coordinate the aid to this region.
Our five vehicle convoy ferries through the mountainous journey. We have Canadian flags mounted on our lead and rear units, courtesy of the Canadian Embassy, and receive a police escort through dangerous mountain roads that are notorious for banditry.
Thousands of displaced residents line up for clean water
Our journey comes to an abrupt halt before we reach the lake near Panajachel. The bridge is out and our vehicles cannot cross. Locals fleeing the area help us unload our gear and ferry it across the bridge. The army meets up with us on the other side. An ambulance carrying a pregnant teen in labor arrives. We ferry her across the bridge to another vehicle and continue shuttling our gear. The army drives us down to the shores of Lake Atitlan. Their mandate ends at these shores.
We commandeer three speedboats and load up our gear yet again. The crossing occurs as the sun is falling. The darkness of night makes unloading the gear at the other end a challenge. Luckily, a wealthy family allowed let our team use their villa for a command centre and sleeping quarters. The view at sunrise is breathtaking. It is hard to imagine that so much death has occurred in such a pristine place.
At sunrise, our team rolls into the town square. The locals are still sleeping. Stray dogs lay sleeping on every corner. They have been eating the bodies of victims in the nearby villages. Local health officials have decided to poison them to prevent the spread of disease. Our team takes over a portion of the town square. We set up our water purification units and inflate our portable clinic. The clinic has two large maple leafs on it that match the flags stitched on the side of our ball caps.
We pop up our onion tank. This large bladder will serve as a central receiving vessel that we will fill with contaminated lake water. Using the fire department's pumper and a water tanker used to help build roads, we continually fill the bladder. Our purification units draw water through various carbon, charcoal and ultraviolet light filters before storing the newly cleaned water in 'clean' bladders to be dispensed. We are a little weary that the locals will be filling contaminated containers. So, as an extra precaution, we chlorinate the clean water to help clean the jugs that the villagers carry.
Clean water is dispensed into a local refugee's jug
A couple of quick tests reveal that our water is better than that found in the taps of Toronto. Local loudspeakers announce that clean water is finally available. The curious gather around. One by one, every team member drinks from the dispensing hose. This shows the locals the water is safe to drink. However, it also triggers a mad rush. Thousands of people appear with plastic jugs in hand. They want our clean water. The lineup starts and the production line begins. Jug after jug, bladder after bladder, pumper truck after pumper truck, we dole out safe clean drinking water to the masses. This should help stop the outbreaks of cholera and other water-borne diseases.
Across the square, our medical team is helping to vaccinate thousands of people. The logistics coordinator is distributing over $55,000 worth of medicines and water purification tablets to remote villages. These emergency medicines can treat over 7,500 patients.
We are also distributing thousands of tubes of antifungal creams to help those sleeping on the road. Our trucks have arrived. We keep them busy shuttling aid in from Guatemala City and distributing it around to smaller villages and the shelters.
Day after day, our routine continues. The water station is open form sun-up to sundown. The lines never seem to fade. At one point, I estimated nearly 9,000 people lined up to get water or vaccinations. Our team needs more manpower and help. The help comes in the form of a gaggle of young school kids. They take over the distribution process. They spend grueling hours providing clean water to their fellow villagers, loved ones and friends. They keep the crowds at bay and, when someone won't listen or tries to bypass the line, they summon one of the burly team members, usually the police officers from our team.
They are smart kids. These complicated expensive pieces of Western technology are being run by a makeshift soccer line up of gangly, curious children who have risen in the face of a disaster to help their people. By the end of the mission, I'm convinced that they could run the system on their own.
As we continue our efforts to dispense medicine, water and chemicals to outlaying areas cut off from the aid, I find myself standing in a mass grave. The smell of death is everywhere. It's overwhelming and permeates through my mask. Local officials have sprayed a white lime powder over the bodies to prevent the spread of disease. They have also started to poison all the dogs in the area. As we drive through the deserted morning streets, the dogs that were once sleeping are now seizing or already dead. A bizarre looking truck is driving through the town, collecting their lifeless bodies.
I walk toward a local school and find myself standing next to a basketball net. But the rim is at the level of my shoulders. I look down and realize that the whole court has been covered with several feet of mud. Some houses are completely gone and others are filled with mud. Doors that were propped open allowed a sea of mud to fill the home. The occupants never stood a chance of escaping. Many homes are destroyed. But, strangely, other homes are untouched.
Staff at one of the local clinics asks our help. A seven-year-old girl who looks barely four, is in respiratory distress. They feel she needs to be intubated. Having failed to respond to therapy, doctors realize they don't have the facilities to provide and sustain the advanced level of care she needs. It's also unlikely that she will survive the arduous land journey out of the mountains.
Marvin uses his cell phone to sweet-talk a brigadier general into sending in a helicopter. The military is afraid to land a military aircraft because of their history with the populace. So, instead, they arrange for a military pilot to land a small civilian chopper in the town.
The helipad is buried under twelve feet of mud. Marvin suggests a landing site just north of our Canadian flag. The inflatable shelter is a great landmark for the pilot to see from the sky. Within minutes, team members are holding back the crowds as a chopper lands in the courtyard of a church. Paramedic David Hutcheon, a 23-year road veteran on his second international deployment of 2005 cares for the child on the flight and ambulance run to Guatemala City.
The end of our mission arrives. It has been an incredible experience. I will always remember the kids; the devastating trauma, the mass graves that still haunt me; the nightly jam sessions with our entourage of music teachers, providing a million litres of clean drinking water and donating $55,000 worth of emergency medicines.
We later learned that the child we evacuated survived. That fact, the expression of gratitude we received from the people who truly needed our help, and the feeling you get in your soul when you realize you've helped some folks in need was all the reward our team of volunteers needed for their amazing sacrifices and efforts.
About the Author
Rahul Singh is coordinator of the Canadian-based David McAntony Gibson Foundation (DMGF).
About the David McAntony Gibson Foundation (DMGF)
DMGF was created in the spring of 1998 in honor of David McAntony Gibson, who tragically lost his life on February 7, 1998. Gibson was a remarkable man who believed in taking the time to help those around him, both near and far. He is remembered by his friends, family and peers as caring, compassionate and dedicated. In keeping with David's spirit, DMGF is designed to help those in need around the world by providing relief supplies and equipment, and has adopted "Serving the Global Community" as its motto.
DMG Foundation's mission is to aid people in need in the third world. The sole purpose of the foundation is to help people in developing countries specifically in the field of emergency medicine and relief issues. The foundation's goals include:
1.To provide emergency relief services and supplies to victims of man made or natural disasters around the world
2.To develop a prehospital emergency medical care training package and deliver it to hospitals in developing countries along with paramedic equipment in order to enhance emergency medical services.
3.To develop a Rapid Response Team (RRT)
4.To facilitate the donation and delivery of large scale medical equipment from developed nations to medical providers in developing countries
For more information on DMGF, contact Rahul Singh firstname.lastname@example.org visitwww.DMGF.org.