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Engineer Eddie Casso Builds Field Hospital in Qingchuan

  • June 26, 2008

Eddie Casso Lopez has traveled the world constructing field hospitals, from Pakistan to New Orleans and many points in between. But this was a first. He had been in Qingchuan, China, just a few hours, still acclimating to the devastation from the May 12 earthquake, when he was approached by a Chinese nurse asking about the status of the recently donated AmeriCares field hospital.


Staff Photo

Engineer Eddie Casso Lopez (center) with Brian Hoyer of AmeriCares (left) and colleague Don Diesel (right). “The nurse wanted to know when the field hospital would be ready,” Casso Lopez said. “She said she had two cases waiting to be treated.”

Casso Lopez was taken aback, but the inquiry also reaffirmed his purpose. The 7.9-magnitude earthquake that struck China’s Sichuan Province shattered the region, destroying whole townships and damaging the only hospital in Qingchuan, a county of 250,000 people, beyond use. As a stopgap measure, patients were being treated in improvised structures that could provide only outpatient services; more serious cases were forced to travel three hours, over the mountains, to the nearest functioning hospital.

To address the long-term needs of Qingchuan — located in a remote area of northern Sichuan — AmeriCares purchased a BLU-MED field hospital and equipped it with medicines and supplies. Overseeing the construction of the 15-bed facility was AmeriCares emergency response team members Brian Hoyer and Michael Chang, working side by side with BLU-MED’s Casso Lopez, an engineer, and his partner, Don Diesel.

“It’s satisfying to know that we have something that’s going to help them,” Casso Lopez said. “Where they were working out of was pretty basic. I was a medical technician in the Air Force so I could recognize the situation. It was pretty grim.”

Diesel, also a frequent traveler to disaster regions, readily affirmed as much. He noted that all the citizens of Qingchuan are living in tent cities with no indoor toilets.

“The level of devastation was a surprise,” he said. “It was pretty severe.”

The two engineers quickly set about building the medical structure that will be able to serve the people of Qingchuan for years to come.

Conceptualizing the field hospital and actually constructing it, however, proved to be vastly different enterprises.

Blue med construction

Staff Photo

The team constructing the field hospital in Qingchuan.

Diesel said he hopes for two things at any construction site: a forklift and flat ground. In Qingchuan he had neither. Instead, the field hospital was constructed piecemeal, with concrete slabs poured to level the ground and a section of the field hospital built on top of that slab — the two steps coming in quick succession. What would normally take one day took nearly three.

Another major issue was communication. Few people in Qingchuan spoke English and there were even fewer translators available. In their place, Casso Lopez and Diesel found a citizenry that was enthusiastic but unprepared.

“They were eager to help, but when you only have one or two guys to communicate, it makes it hard,” Casso Lopez said. “They were ready to go, and sometimes they went without us.”

That enthusiasm was encouraging but it also led to some puzzling moments. At times Diesel and Casso Lopez would look around and discover an entirely new group working on the field hospital, unsure of where they came from and whether they were medical personnel, townspeople or just random strangers.

“People would just drift through and help out,” Diesel said. “One evening folks who looked like tourists started helping out. It turns out they were from a nearby village.”

Regardless, the field hospital was built close to schedule, and on June 18 doctors began seeing and treating patients within the new facility.

Casso Lopez and Diesel are now back in the United States, but a return trip to China may be forthcoming. AmeriCares has offered a second field hospital to the devastated region, and the two engineers say they’re ready to begin construction again — whenever and wherever needed.

“When you mention Pakistan and some of the other countries where we’ve worked, some people envision something awful,” Diesel said. “But in the places we’ve gone the local people have such a need and they’re so appreciative. We may not always be able to communicate very well, but we know how much it means.”

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