disaster relief worker dr K. Jeyathesan
A disaster relief worker shares his thoughts and experiences on rescue missions.
EARLIER this year, Canada’s industry minister Tony Clement jumped into Ontario’s Muskoka River in his dinner clothes to rescue a drowning woman. In another incident in Winnipeg recently, a group of total strangers went out onto the Red River in two boats to rescue a 12year-old autistic boy who was being swept away by the currents.
Even more interesting was an incident in New York in May, whereby a mysterious man jumped into the icy East River to rescue a toddler, got out, and then jumped into a cab and was never seen again.
The world is full of stories like these – selfless individuals who risk their own lives to save others in seemingly heroic fashion. Some are hailed as heroes by the public; others just want to remain anonymous, which is even more reassuring for us that somewhere, somehow, in our time of great need, a faceless Samaritan will come to our aid without asking for anything in return.
Often, those who put their lives on the line for others’ sake do not even think about the implication of their actions.
“No one can save the world,” says Dr Jeyathesan Kulasingam, a disaster relief worker with the International Federation Of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. That is not just a statement of humility, but also one that puts a clear perspective on things. The fact is, no one in a rescue mission goes out there thinking of being a hero.
Jeyathesan, 42, who has been active in the Red Crescent Society since his primary schooldays, has worked with response teams in disaster areas all over the world, from the Boxing Day tsunami in Aceh in 2004 to the earthquake in Pakistan in 2005, and the one in Jogjakarta the year after that. More recently, he has been working in China since the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Sichuan in 2008.
He has a cheerful and easygoing disposition, which one suspects helps him a lot in facing scenes of devastation and death, again and again.
In 2006, when I last interviewed him, Jeyathesan said the way relief workers got through all the heartbreaking scenes was by being lighthearted. “People always wonder what’s wrong with us because we laugh so much,” he told me back then. “But, what else can we do? How long can we cry?”
I related to him my own experience being in Beijing on the very day the Sichuan earthquake occurred. There was an air of general uneasiness even though we were about 1,500km away from the epicentre. We just wanted to get out of there. For relief workers such as Jeyathesan, they head instead to where everyone else fears to tread.
“Of course, we’re bloody scared!” Jeyathesan laughs. “Nobody is fearless or has noble thoughts that we are going to die as heroes. We are aware of what is expected of us. At the same time, we have the confidence that systems have been set up to ensure that we are exposed at a safe level.
“For instance, if someone were injured, he or she could be flown out immediately. It would be pointless for relief workers to work by ‘remote control’, carrying out their work from a safe distance, because then a relationship would not be established with the affected community in the area.
A calculated risk
“I think a lot of humanitarian workers are passionate about what they do,” says Jeyathesan. “If not, they wouldn’t take the risk. It’s really a calculated risk. Every calculation is a gamble. But we have gone through enough to have confidence and take things as they come. But it’s a very human response to say: ‘Hey, I want to get out of here now!’”
Jeyathesan was on the ground with the International Red Cross right after the 2004 Aceh tsunami and earthquake. He remembers how they experienced three to four aftershocks a day. Every time there were tremors, the community became scared. The relief workers on the other hand, had to find ways to respond and give strength to the next person.
Jeyathesan is a trained medical doctor. He was a Red Crescent volunteer long before he went to university. Although medical knowledge is a valuable addition to his relief work, that wasn’t the reason why he took up the profession.
“I studied medicine because I really liked it. It fascinated me. It wasn’t because of a higher calling or anything like that. Sorry, but there was no noble intention or plan,” he laughs.
People also naturally assume that he only works in that capacity in the Red Cross. But the duties of a relief worker encompass so much more. Jeyathesan is now more involved in what is known as “capacity-building”. Generally, people tend to think that relief workers and humanitarian organisations enter a disaster zone to carry out search-and-rescue; provide food, shelter and clothing; help rebuild infrastructure; and then they leave. In reality, it is not so simple.
In a disaster, people’s lives are affected in the long term. Whole communities are sometimes forced to change the way they live. The number of disabled people increases and facilities have to be created for them. Their livelihood is also affected and they have to find new ways of making a living. Then there is the trauma. Physical injuries can be dealt with in time, but psychological effects may not surface immediately.
“Take, for example, Haiti,” says Jeyathesan. “It is now out of people’s minds. When it was ‘hot’, everyone was looking at Haiti, sending in tents and things like that. Actually this period of time (now) is very important because this is when they really need help to get back on their feet.”
Recovery is just not physical; it’s also largely psychological. Rehabilitation and psychosocial recovery help to build a community that is resilient through community-based programmes.
“What we do is we build a community to help them,” says Jeyathesan. “We put mechanisms in areas to allow people to help each other.”
In his early years in the Red Crescent, Jeyathesan started out with duties such as cooking, driving and setting up tents in relief work within Malaysia. He later progressed to search-and-rescue work and capacity-building in overseas missions.
Proper training is vital
These days, he says, the Red Cross and the Red Crescent have a proper training curriculum, from first aid and nursing to disaster training. Back then, volunteers sometimes felt frustrated because they were not well-equipped and it sometimes turned them off volunteer work.
“The system has changed nowadays so you become a skilled volunteer,” says Jeyathesan. “You can now go out there, do something and feel useful.”
But then again, it’s also important to stay realistic. Not everyone can stand the sight of blood, while others love the adrenaline rush. It is about knowing one’s capabilities.
Going back to the incidents of people jumping into rivers to save others, Jeyathesan says: “If you jump in and can’t swim, then you’ve just created a problem. Therefore when we train people, we tell them that they need to know themselves, what they can and cannot do.”
Jeyathesan, who grew up in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, is the younger of two siblings. His elder brother is a practising lawyer. He says in the beginning, his parents, now retired civil servants, did question his future as a relief worker.
“But my career gradually grew. Start passionately and be committed to it. Everybody has something to contribute. You just need to know what you’re comfortable doing and build from there. Never start by thinking you can save the world,” he concluded.
(Clockwise from top)
Dr Jeyathesan Kulasingam with the schoolchildren of Meigu perfecture in the mountains in Sichuan, an area populated by the Yi minority. Psycho-social support activities were carried out with the children.
Being welcomed at a township high up in the mountains in Sichuan, where the Miao people live. It is their custom to welcome guests with song and dance, and alcohol made from a goat’s horns.
Visiting a school in Gansu province in Sichuan, with fellow Red Cross workers. A community health programme will be established there.