Tsunami's wake

A 12-year-old boy made this picture in art therapy with Pillai. He drew himself on a treetop, watching his brother and friend drown in the water.

Asha Pillai, MD, a research associate in the Division of Immunology, was on India’s Kerala Coast when the tsunami struck on Dec. 26, devastating the village where she was staying.

A native of the region, she threw herself into the relief effort. She was the first of several Stanford physicians and students to volunteer their services in the tsunami’s aftermath. Back at Stanford, Pillai continues helping the tsunami’s survivors, attracting donations through the many lectures she has given on the catastrophe. • Here we offer an excerpt of the story Pillai shared with Stanford Report upon her return in January.

The local multi-specialty hospital — the Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences — sent ambulances with medical supplies to the area. The service organization with which I had been working, the Mata Amritanandamayi Center, began organizing relief camps in the local communities. I stationed myself at one of the three main centers. Those people who survived the waves often had less emergent but still serious medical problems: pneumonias from aspirating the filthy water, broken bones and bruises. We found that the biggest ongoing problem was the psychological trauma.

Asha Pillai, MD, was in India when the tsunami hit last year. Now she is focused on fund raising to aid survivors, especially orphaned children.

After four days, we were able to discharge all of the patients from medical care. But the people had lost everything they owned and had nowhere to sleep. We converted the medical camps into ongoing shelters where we continued to live, sleep, eat and share the pain of the people.

Over the last week we began focusing on psychological therapy with the traumatized children. Many of them were unable to sleep or go into a room because they had recurring visions of waters rushing into their home to kill them while they dozed. After some days of play therapy, we brought in paints and drawing materials and asked them to draw whatever they thought would make them feel better. A 12-year-old boy who watched several friends and relatives die in the water shared both a drawing of the drownings and a cartoon depicting the sequence of events, which he recalled with almost photographic detail.

We were blessed with volunteers who came around the clock to hold hands, to provide a human touch and a caring smile and to help clean the bedridden — all areas in which the need for help was great. I felt reassured by the work everyone was doing at this site of unimaginable suffering.

To learn how to help, visit www.wavesofcompassion.org/.

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