An earthquake and a lie that changed my life forever

Written on the 25th anniversary of the Latur Earthquake.

On this day, 25 years ago, Latur region (a district of Maharashtra) was devastated by an earthquake that claimed nearly 8000 lives and disabled millions. I was 24 years old that time and doing my 1st year of Masters in General Surgery at BHU, Varanasi. Newspapers (the only source of information those days) printed horrific stories of human suffering and pictures of massive devastation. My conscience kept urging me to step in and contribute to the relief work. There were several hurdles in executing my longing. Everyone told me that it was stupidity to even attempt reaching there without a team.There was no possibility of getting such a long leave during Master’s program. My parents were unlikely to give permission. I did not have enough money since it was end of the month. Moreover, no one could tell me how to reach Latur. My guilt continued to grow exponentially with every passing day. However, the concern for safety and fear of reprimand by my college/parents withered slowly. Finally, on the 3rd day of the earthquake, I boarded a train headed for Mumbai and sought guidance for my destination enroute with the help of fellow passengers.

I reached Latur bus stop,via Manmad, at 4 pm with the feeling of being completely lost in a crowded city. Where to go? What to do? Whom should I contact? I kept wandering for few hours around the bus stop when I saw a banner mentioning District Collector’s office as the coordination centre for relief work. I remember introducing myself to an officer named Mr Quazi who was surrounded by ringing phones, heaps of files and dozens of people in his tiny office. He was helpful but told me that Indian Army has cordoned the entire affected area and I can not reach there that too as a “sole relief worker’. He was very clear, they were under full control of situation and no further help was required. I was shattered.Exhausted and nervous, I must admit, that I cried sitting outside his office. I was hopeless, clueless, helpless and lonely. I started to regret my impulsive decision.

While I was waiting there figuring out my return journey, I witnessed a delegation led by Nuns meeting Mr Quazi. Few of the nuns sat next to me on the bench and started talking amongst themselves. They were part of the Catholic Hospital Association of India and the delegation had come from St John’s Hospital, Bengaluru. They already had official permission to work in Killari and adjoining areas. The current delegation was replacement for the earlier group that was already working there. I could see a God sent opportunity and begged them to include me in their delegation. I am ashamed to admit, I lied to them that I was a surgeon (though I had completed 1st year only). It so happened that they were in dire need of a surgeon and could not ignore me.

That was the beginning of a new inning in my life. The 3 weeks that I spent with the missionaries in offering medical assistance changed the course of my life. I extensively toured the villages providing relief and health tips meant for such areas. I performed deliveries, took care of fractures, worked on sanitation to prevent outbreaks, conducted minor surgeries, distributed food etc. I felt so important seeing the welcoming households of earthquake affected houses. I felt so happy giving solace to the grieving families. I felt so satisfied performing deliveries in the makeshift camp with the nuns. We used to sleep on the floor in the open in those cold nights because the land continued to shake violently due to the after- shocks. Often,I woke up in the morning with the sight of scorpions and snakes around the bed. None of them ever harmed anyone! There was no electricity and no communication from the outside world.

I witnessed the supreme example of human resilience when I saw people smiling and welcoming despite the trauma in the recent past. I had never felt so overwhelmed and satisfied in my life. I felt truly proud of being a doctor. I did reveal to the CHAI team that I wasn’t a fully trained surgeon but highly skilled despite only one year of training. It seems, they appreciated my attitude and ignored my attributes. I am still in touch with some of my fellow team members.

The memories of Latur still live with me and keep reminding me about the pleasure and power of being a doctor. My definition of Service and Purpose of life changed forever. There is nothing that is more satisfying than a service that is truly selfless and driven by sheer passion. It continues to guide me every day. I still feel guilty for the fact that it started with a lie.

Dr Pankaj Chaturvedi
Tata Memorial Hospital