Excerpt: Doctor in a strange land
A doctor leaves one tsunami-struck country to help another
By Satinder Bindra
Editor's Note: CNN New Delhi Bureau Chief Satinder Bindra was in Colombo, Sri Lanka, when the tsunami struck on December 26 and spent the next three weeks covering the disaster. Inspired by the courage of a 9-year-old boy who lost his mother, Bindra has written a book, "Tsunami: Seven Hours that Shook the World." These are select excerpts from the book.
Indian Navy doctor, Commander Gopalan Parthasarathy, was spending a relaxing weekend at home when the phone rang.
It was 10:30 a.m. and on the line was his breathless older brother informing him that a tsunami had lashed parts of the southern Indian city of Chennai. The conversation immediately brought Commander Parthasarathy to his feet. His hands turned clammy and he could barely speak.
Then, he slowly enquired about the whereabouts of his mother and grandmother who lived on a beachfront property. There was no good news there either. His brother had not been able to contact them.
Seconds after concluding his conversation, Commander Parthasarathy turned on the television set to catch the latest news.
He then picked up the phone, silently praying he wouldn't have any problems contacting Chennai. After more than two hours of continuous dialing, he got through to his mother, who told him she was safe but his 82-year-old grandmother had been evacuated to an unknown destination.
As the Indian naval pathologist sat down to lunch, the phone rang again. This time the call was from naval officials at the hospital asking him to prepare immediately for deployment to Colombo.
As he packed his bags, Commander Parthasarathy was still unaware of both the condition and the whereabouts of his grandmother. It was only four days after his arrival in Sri Lanka that he got to speak to his emotional grandmother on the phone. Anyone in his situation would have been alarmed and would have thought twice about his impending trip. But not Commander Parthasarathy. He was all set to go.
This is what he had trained for and he felt duty-bound to help the people of Sri Lanka. By 2:00 p.m., he had packed almost 750 kg (1,650 pounds) of medication and, shortly thereafter, reached the airport with two paramedics who helped in loading his gear onto an Indian Navy plane. At 7:30 that same evening, Commander Parthasarathy and his team arrived in Colombo, heralding the onset of the world's largest-ever relief operation.
The next morning, Commander Parthasarathy was deployed with the Sri Lankan Army at Hambantota in the south of the island. Relief workers there were finding it hard to cope with hundreds of bodies that had been deposited at the local hospital and morgue. Heavy rains in the area had further compounded their difficulties as it was now impossible to cremate the bodies.
Left with no choice, Commander Parthasarathy and his team prepared for mass burials. Army bulldozers were pressed into action to dig huge pits near the beach. These graves were then lined with lime and bleach to slow down the decomposition of bodies so that they wouldn't contaminate the local water supply.
For the next few days, the small Indian medical contingent teamed up with a group of Sri Lankan medical students who acted as their interpreters and they drove to all the relief camps in the area.
They often travelled 250 km a day, saw almost 150 patients and worked long hours, but for Commander Parthasarathy, the intense effort was certainly worth it: "There was a lot of appreciation for what we did and people in the district were deeply thankful." Parthasarathy was also heartened to see how the people came together. "Such disasters always bring out the best in humanity.
"For example, there was a group of people in Hambantota. Most had lost their entire families but when they heard the army was pulling out bodies from the muddy and swampy waters, 40 of them volunteered to help. They actually helped us pull out bodies, line them up and photograph them before they were buried. They didn't expect a single penny for what they did and it was phenomenal."
A lot of people from Colombo also drove down to help. Among them were large batches of students who loaded vans with hundreds of coconuts and plied relief workers with sweet coconut water. "What I saw reinforced my belief in humanity. It taught me people are not always bad and there is always a helping hand when we face these kinds of troubles."
Commander Parthasarathy's experience also reinforced his faith in God. "Everywhere I went mosques and shrines were often the only structures standing. And it made me wonder why they were still intact when every other building around them had been destroyed." He also never felt guilty about leaving India, which itself had been ravaged by the tsunami: "I could trust that there would be somebody in India doing what I was doing in Sri Lanka. You have got to have that faith.
"That's what you've got to think. If my country can send people abroad, of course they can look after their own." Commander Parthasarathy's spirit, his magnanimity and his selflessness were soon to become a shining example for millions across the world who showed unprecedented generosity in helping the people of Sri Lanka.
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