January 30, 2001


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Dr Gyaneshwar Rao on the earthquake and its aftermath
'If my daughter is dead, he said let me look for my wife'

The Rediff Special/Dr Gyaneshwar Rao

This is a story about the battle between the human will to survive and nature's destructive instinct. Dr Gyaneshwar Rao is a well-known surgeon in Bhuj. After reading how he saved many score lives the day the earthquake struck, you have little doubt who the winner is in the fight between man and nature.

I have lived in Bhuj since 1987. This is the city of unambitious people. It is so small that everyone knows everyone. On January 26, I was playing badminton when the unexpected earthquake shook us. Unexpected because I have built a bungalow and hospital here and no authority ever told me to be careful. My friend and architect Kumtekar did prevail on me not to build a basement because he said Bhuj is in a seismic zone. I have been associated with 20 institutions in Bhuj, but no one ever discussed this, not even any of the collectors posted here.

No one can ever accurately describe what we experienced on Friday morning. It was frightening, sickening. For many moments the tremors did not stop. I screamed again and again, "Oh God, why don't you stop?" Dhadak,dhadak... Buildings were crashing down and a monstrous cloud of dust covered the city. My father described it correctly. He said it was like a huge plane landing right on your head.

Dr Gyaneshwar Rao with his family When I came out, Bhuj was dead. That was the worst 15 minutes of my life. I drove home and saw my family. My wife Alka and daughter were searching for me. They were crying. All five of us hugged each other and cried.

I thought of my patients and rushed to the hospital. I gave someone a lift. Believe me, I don't know who sat next to me. My senses were numbed. My staff were smart -- they had led all the patients out onto the road. Thus, they were saved. When I arrived, one of my staffers said, "Sir, forget it (my hospital). It's gone." I met Dr Mahadev Patel, we hugged and cried.

Someone shook me and asked, "Doctor, tamhe dhila thasho to kem chalshe? (How can you lose heart?) " That resident of Bhuj asked me to act. I was not prepared. I said, "What can I do? Let us go to the general hospital." He said, "Don't you know? It's gone. It has collapsed." I was speechless. I looked around for my stethoscope.

People started arriving outside where my hospital had stood. In 10 minutes, there were 100 patients. This was around 9.30 am. All of them had multiple injuries. Someone's intestine had burst, some had broken hands, others came with broken legs. All of them needed surgery as soon as possible. I instantly took one correct decision, don't ask me how. I asked the injured to follow me to the Jubilee ground. All hell then broke loose. I am still amazed that in 10 minutes so many injured people got to know that medical help was available on Jubilee ground.

In that mad rush so many good doctors of Bhuj were around, but for the first few hours I was the only surgeon. People started jostling to catch my attention. I requested two of the patients's relatives to flank me for my protection. I did not have any injections. I was helpless. I did not have needle and thread either.

Do you know what I did? I shook the patients. With affection, I told them to get out of the trauma. I shouted: "Breathe deeply! Breathe deeply!" There were so many serious cases. So many people were dead! Ninety per cent of them had head injuries. I asked people to help. I asked one young man to break into a chemist's shop and get syringes, glucose bottles, needle and thread. I told him not to worry, that I would take the blame.

He got some supplies, but hardly much. Get medicines, I screamed. When I shouted again, people got courage. I got what I wanted. It was around 9.40 am. I realised the magnitude of the problem and knew that what I was doing was not enough. In an hour, patients from Anjar arrived, many with serious injuries. Dr Patel, Dr P N Acharya, Dr Pujara and Dr Bharat Joshi had joined me by then. I wanted to operate. I was desperate.The city had collapsed, and not a single operation theatre was available.

I asked my colleague Bharat Chothani to rush to my hospital and bring the operation kit. I asked patients's relatives to get me red tiles, sheets of wood and cardboard to put patients's limbs in plaster. I asked someone to get Menanitol. I used pieces of shawls, shirts and sarees as bandages. When one patient complained of bleeding I tore his headgear and tied it tightly around his thigh.

One man rushed to me with a girl in his hands. "Doctor," he said, "please treat her first." I thought the girl was dead. The father wanted my confirmation of that fact. "Be quick doctor. If she is dead, then let me rush to look for my wife in the debris of my home."

He was in deep shock, emotionless. I told him, "Just keep her in our care and run for your wife." He left, leaving his daughter's dead body in our custody.

The most traumatic thing for me that day was when I had to ask relatives to take the quickest possible decision -- to allow me to save a life by cutting off an injured limb. I was rough. I normally don't behave like that, and I am sorry. I knew every third patient personally. They would scream at me, "Doctor, why don't you look at my leg? Don't you recognise me?"

For the first few hours I only had one needle. I told Dr Bharat Joshi to hold that needle. It was the most valuable thing I had. My colleagues arranged patients in such a manner that I could stitch three patients at one go. Hundreds of patients were lying on the open ground. With a needle, thread and a pair of scissors, I started suturing. I was shouting at the patients, "Don't cry. Keep quiet." Around us, the noise level was so high. People were screaming in pain, relatives crying in anguish.

I must have sutured 150 patients that day. By 11 am, the home guards arrived, then came member of Parliament Pushpdan Gadhvi. I finally got a table; I asked for a tent. Once they were in place I started operating. Again, it was a hard time. With only a pair of scissors I had to cut off a leg or arm of many patients. I did it to save lives. Other doctors tied the bandages. By 3 pm, I had 5 tables and lots of medical help.

Harish Thakkar, who has a food stall on the footpath opposite the bus stand, asked if he could help. I said, "get me a gas stove and a huge utensil to boil water." He got it in no time and also brought dabeli, a popular dish in Bhuj, for the patients and their relatives. Imagine, hundreds of pieces in a few hours. It was a miracle.

As I was treating patients, I got pieces of news. "Ramesh is no more," that some other friend had died. So many people I knew have died. One nice chap put biscuits in my mouth when I was stitching wounds. He was so caring. Slowly, things got organised. We don't know who got those things for us. Things poured in. Dicloran and Tetanus Toxide injections were made available.

After 7 pm, I was tired, it was beyond my scope. I went to the district health officer's office. It's an administrative post. The man does not know anything about medicine. I wanted a mobile operation theatre and 100 operation kits. It was not made available even on Monday night. I pleaded with him and the politicians. "Don't call doctors. Get the operation stuff first." Two hundred doctors have arrived in Kutch, but we don't know how to use them in the best way. Thirty bright medical men came from AIIMS, Delhi, but without equipment. Eighty per cent of medical help is useless unless we have an operation theatre and equipment.

Someone sent a helicopter full of Cloramycin, not a great help. I need 1,000 pairs of gloves, please. I understand that the sender does not know the ground realities. As of late night, January 29, we don't have a functioning orthopaedic section and an operation theatre. The military hospital is doing a wonderful job under Colonel Lahiri's leadership, but their resources are limited.

All the private dispensaries are shut, the government hospital is gone, where will the children and mothers will go? We want a temporary hospital that will last us 6 months.

As told to Sheela Bhatt

Design: Dominic Xavier

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