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Voices from the Field: China

  • March 13, 2009

AmeriCares relief worker Michael Chang shares thoughts and impressions from his latest review of earthquake recovery efforts in China. Michael was in China on May 12, 2008 when a 7.9-magnitude earthquake rocked the Sichuan Province, killing tens of thousands and leaving millions in desperate need of food, water, shelter and medical attention. Michael helped build two field hospitals for AmeriCares in the wake of the disaster and recently returned to assess their progress.

It was at our first field hospital, in Qingchuan, that I met Xiao Zhaoxian, a 58-year-old man recovering from surgery on his leg.

Mr. Xiao was on the second level of his house this winter, repairing damage from the earthquake, when the floor gave way and he came crashing down to the floor below. He immediately dialed “120” – the local version of our 911 system – and two hours later, an ambulance donated by AmeriCares pulled up to take him to the field hospital.

Had AmeriCares not donated ambulances and built the facility to temporarily replace a local hospital destroyed by the earthquake, Mr. Xiao would have endured a six-hour drive to the next nearest hospital in agonizing pain.

Both he and his wife were so appreciative to have our hospital nearby and were incredibly thankful to get a ride to the hospital in a new ambulance. Mr. Xiao couldn’t say enough about the great care he had received from the staff. It was a story I heard over and over as I talked to patients in the blue, tent-like structure. Many live up in the mountains, at the top of steep, narrow roads, making the journey to a hospital sometimes more dangerous than going without medical treatment.

It’s pretty amazing to see all of the changes that have taken place since I was last there in June. A huge sign on the highway directs traffic to our hospital, and it’s the center of activity in the town. Street vendors mill around the grounds hawking food and merchandise.

Ninety percent of the buildings are still unoccupied due to irreparable structural damage from the earthquake. Residents who had been living in government-issued tents in the initial aftermath have since moved into more modern, pre-fabricated buildings.

In Qingchuan, officials are debating rebuilding the town a few miles away on level land closer to the highway.

In Xuankou, in Wenchuan County – the epicenter of the earthquake where we built our second field hospital – the former hospital and most of the buildings in the surrounding area have already been demolished, leaving a coating of black, sooty dust all around. They recently broke ground on a new, permanent hospital.

Most striking, to me, is how quickly the living conditions have improved in the last seven months – all with the exception of the doctor’s quarters. Hospital employees, who had been living in an apartment building next to the hospital until it was deemed unsafe, are now making do in an open-air shelter that does not protect them from the harsh winter elements. They gather around space heaters to keep warm.

It’s an unbelievable feeling to be here on the ground witnessing the critical role AmeriCares is playing in the recovery process – and even more inspiring knowing our hospitals will continue to aid the people of China in the months and years ahead.