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Tsunami relief

Pope, Christina

Rusty DeGeorge, CMPE, MGMA member and CEO, Urology Center of the South, Germantown, Tenn.

Kenneth M. Hekman, FACMPE, MGMA member and president, The Hekman Group, Holland, Mich.

Rusty DeGeorge''s journey to help Asian tsunami victims was remarkably short by some standards.

Just days after the tsunami hit on Dec. 26, 2004, DeGeorge''s church began organizing relief trips, and he knew he wanted to go. On Jan. 14, he was chosen for the next trip, leaving just three days later. After receiving five shots - for hepatitis A and B, typhoid, tetanus and influenza - and packing his food, tent and supplies, DeGeorge and eight others boarded the first of many planes to take them 11,000 miles.

In Medan, Indonesia, on the island of Sumatra, their group grew to 19 after they joined other American church volunteers and Indonesia-based missionaries. Their first desination was Banda Aceh, the city closest to the earthquake''s epicenter. However, separatist gunfire closed the road, so relief organizers routed the volunteers to another Sumatran west coast village, Suaktima. The village had lost 900 of its 1,700 inhabitants in the moments the tsunami devoured 300 meters of beachfront.

"The total destruction was my biggest surprise," DeGeorge says. "It will probably be decades before they fully recover. It almost paralyzes you. You just don''t know where to begin."

Nearly a month after the disaster, DeGeorge''s group of seven women and 12 men were the first relief workers to arrive in the area. They were preceded by 30 villagers just returning from refugee tent camps.

When the volunteers got to Suaktima mid-day on Jan. 21, village men were resting in the shade alongside a newly dug trench. The volunteers had endured days of monotonous travel and an 18-hour bus ride, so they were eager to get started. They grabbed shovels and started in. To the amusement of locals, the equatorial heat and 100 percent humidity felled the exhausted travelers after just a few scoops of dirt. It would be one of the few light moments during their first days in Suaktima.

The trench they were digging was not a latrine - as they first thought - but a 50-foot-long mass grave.

Sorrow and hospitality

The volunteers spent their first days burning debris and helping villagers with burials. The few translators helped ease communication and awkward moments between the enthusiastic volunteers and uncertain locals. The group, comprising American church volunteers and missionaries, knew there would be no proselytizing in Indonesia, a country that is 97 percent Muslim and presumed to be the greatest funding source of the terrorist group al-Qaida. But they were pleasantly surprised by their reception.

"People welcomed us everywhere we stopped on our trip," DeGeorge says. "People were glad we were there."

First bonds were forged with the group''s van drivers, an occupation that saved the life of one man named Andreas. When the tsunami hit, he was driving a customer inland. The wave killed Andreas'' parents, his wife and his three children; in total, he lost 22 family members. He was left with only his van and the clothes on his back. Sitting with DeGeorge during a burial, Andreas opened an Indonesian-to-English dictionary and pointed to the word "sorrow."

Midway through their weeklong stay, the village chief told the volunteers that for the first time since the tsunami hit, his people had smiles and hope.

By then, the volunteers had begun digging latrines and by the last day moved on to pumping out salt water and removing debris from nine of the village''s 140 wells. Debris removal at first had to be done by hand. Fortunately, none of the people lowered into the wells had the frightening and grim task of recovering bodies.

DeGeorge was awed by the people''s generosity. "On the last day of our trip, the villagers cooked a large meal - food that was intended to feed them for the next few days. Then they insisted that the American guests eat first," DeGeorge says. "That hospitality and sharing are such a part of who they are. It happened everywhere we went. One day a teenage boy we were working with had just two crackers and he gave one to me. It was all he had."

Personal grief fuels outreach

Kenneth Hekman''s two-week journey to Thailand in February was just the latest step on his passage of grief and hope, one that started seven years ago with the loss of his 17-year-old daughter, Carla, who died in a car accident.

Months before the tsunami, Hekman was already scheduled to speak in Chiang Mai, Thailand, at a continuing education conference for 200 American medical missionaries from across Asia. At the Feb. 14-28 conference, he spoke about leadership, dealing with difficult people, organizational change and learning to live with sorrow. "Many of the physicians attending the conference were from hard-hit countries and will continue to serve survivors for years to come, so the presentation on learning to live with sorrow was even more poignant than I anticipated," Hekman says.

What he heard from attendees in the standingroom-only session were tales of survivors who were fatalistic and resigned. He heard stories of people who believed they were the unlucky ones - their hopes for the future were dashed by secondhand effects like farmland ruined by saltwater. The session served as much to help the physicians cope with the devastation as to teach them how to help disaster victims.

"These are physicians who work in very difficult circumstances," Hekman says. "Their scope of work is way beyond their specialties, and they work extremely long hours. But their experiences didn''t prepare them for this kind of tragedy. The tsunami shocked them just as much as it did the rest of the world."

Mixing professional knowledge and personal mission, Hekman says he devotes 10 percent to 20 percent of his time as a volunteer, planning and developing health care businesses in Third World countries. He has made more than 20 trips in the past six years to Romania, Honduras, Kyrgyzstan, Suriname and Thailand.

Hekman helped the conference attendees address issues nearly unthinkable in the United States: how to set up hiring processes based on skill levels and not familial ties; how to teach people to lead in communist countries where all they know is how to follow; and how to earn trust in countries where corruption is commonplace.

"Some of the problems are huge, but some are a little more basic, like teaching clinics how to control inventory against pilfering," Hekman says.

The loss of their daughter had a profound effect on Hekman and his wife, Marybeth. Their priorities changed, as did the rhythm of their lives.

"Domestic consulting projects seem to flow when I''m home and ebb when it''s time to go overseas," Hekman says. "It''s healing. And I''m learning as I help others."

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about the authoi

Christina Pope, MGMA senior writer,

Copyright Medical Group Management Association Publications May/Jun 2005
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