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When Disaster Strikes

On September 19th, 2017, 32 years after a massive earthquake in Mexico killed thousands of people and left almost one million homeless, another huge quake hit. At the time of writing, almost 300 were dead, dozens of buildings were destroyed and the earthquake had affected thousands of people’s homes – and lives.

In the immediate aftermath, the citizens and government of Mexico worked together to react to the catastrophe, but it wasn’t until hours and even days later that the true scale of the disaster became clear. People of all professions volunteered to give support during the chaos, and doctors and paramedics played a fundamental role in attending to the victims in the aftermath. Every health professional played a vital role – in both the disaster zones and in the hospitals – and the skills of all would come in to play; not just those of the emergency physician, but also those of the psychiatrist who could control anxiety crises. It’s when I asked myself: what can an ophthalmologist do after a disaster? I remembered the taunts from medical friends in other specialties about the “easy” lifestyle of an ophthalmologist.

Well, ophthalmologists at many clinics, in both public and private practice, gave free-of-charge eye care to those who had suffered because of the disaster. And the eyecare industry donated much-needed medication. My colleagues on the front line reported that ocular trauma, burns and foreign bodies in the ocular surface were the most common emergencies. And that was also my experience. I joined a mobile medical unit – a van armed with both a regular and a portable slit-lamp – sent by the Institute of Ophthalmology Conde de Valenciana (where I completed my training in ophthalmology) – and we set up in one of the most devastated regions of Mexico City.

In those places, our work mostly consisted of treating those people affected by foreign bodies and dust from the building rubble – not just those who had been rescued, but also the rescuers and volunteers, which was crucial because it kept them functional so they could continue to do their jobs. But there were situations where more than eye care was needed (and I am well aware of that part about being a doctor). It was about going back to the basics of our medical training: providing first aid, distributing medication, measuring vital signs, organizing medical kits and so on. It was about going back to the basics of being a human being: working as a team, participating in the human chains that transported supplies, giving support to the sad or tired… I was experiencing the very reason why most of us entered the medical profession in the first place: to help others.

We must remember that every doctor and every specialist is important in a catastrophe – and that every volunteer can contribute in complex situations, such as the aftermath of an earthquake. We still have a lot to do in terms of rebuilding – but living through the disaster has taught me that every person can play an important role, and do far more than they thought possible.

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About the Author

Juan Carlos Serna-Ojeda

Juan Carlos Serna-Ojeda is a cornea and refractive Surgeon, in Mexico City, Mexico.

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