dis­as­ter re­lief worker dr K. Jey­athe­san

A dis­as­ter re­lief worker shares his thoughts and ex­pe­ri­ences on res­cue mis­sions.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - By AL­LAN KOAY al­lan@thes­tar.com.my

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.

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