The phone rang a few minutes after we felt the earthquake. It was the morning of December 26. I was at a friends house. He is the general manager of the Marriott Hotel. The hotel was calling. A tsunami had hit the coast of Thailand.
I went to the hospital once I realized how devastating the destruction had been.

Beyond Capacity
I had moved here from Bangkok only a month earlier. I am the manager of the new TRSC International LASIK Center, located inside Bangkok Phuket Hospital in Phuket, a town about 10 miles from the coast. Our LASIK center caters mostly to foreign tourists looking for affordable services with highly experienced surgeons who use the latest technology. (The center performed wavefront custom LASIK a year before it was FDA approved in the United States, for example.) Most of the tourists who visit our center combine a vacation with the procedure.

When I arrived, the hospital was filled with people. As usual, almost all were tourists. What was unusual, however, was that they were there for triage, not scheduled procedures.

The hospital was filled beyond capacity, so beds were set up in all available floor space, including the LASIK clinic. Our brand new center was temporarily transformed into a primary-care clinic for nearly a week. It became a communication center for survivors trying to reach their loved ones or find other family members who were lost.

During the disaster, everyone at the LASIK clinic assisted. Non-medical personnel cleaned and bandaged wounds, communicated with patients and their families, and tended to patients basic needs of clothes, food and beds. Most patients had only their swimming clothesno money, no identification, and no other belongings. Clothes were the first thing many of them needed.

Many people had lost their glasses in the wave. We were able to help several of these people by providing them with glasses, but not as many as I would have liked. Our LASIK center had opened only two weeks earlier, so all we had were a few glasses donated by past patients.

Personal Stories
I met with many patients and heard their stories. One of the first patients I met was in complete shock. She thought that her entire family had died, including her husband, father, mother and two children. The woman blamed herself. She had insisted that the family take a vacation together to Thailand. Her husband had wanted to stay in Germany and buy a car instead.

She was walking alone on the beach when the tsunami hit. She assumed that the bungalow in which her family was staying was destroyed, and that they had not survived. Phone lines were useless at that time, but our center regularly uses the Internet to communicate with patients. I helped e-mail her family and friends in Germany to tell them of her location. I also tried my best to comfort her.

Within 24 hours, most of her family members were located and brought to the hospital. They had escaped the bungalow, but had lost all their belongings. Sadly, her mother was never found.

Another patient was swept out to sea as the tsunami receded. He and three other tourists stayed afloat on a makeshift raft. His family thought he was dead, but a boat picked him up the next day. He was first taken to a government hospital, but after we received word that he was alive, I picked him up myself to bring him to our hospital. He thought I was taking him to make a phone call. When I told him I was taking him to his wife, he started to cry, realizing that they would be together again.
Dr. Hickenbotham (center) at a VOSH trip on the eastern shore of Thailand.

Helping Hands
Everyone wanted to help. On my day off, I went to a site most affected by the disaster, but the people at this site told me they didnt know how I could help. They said they had enough trouble managing the people already there, and didnt need more hands to oversee.

At the same time, a group of students from my alma mater, the University of California, Berkeley, School of Optometry, was flying in for a trip sponsored by Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity (VOSH/International). We originally hoped to perform eye exams and dispense eyeglasses to the poor people in the Phuket area. When the tsunamis came, the need for these services was at an all time high.

Unfortunately, the United States issued a warning that all non-emergency travel to areas affected by the tsunamis should be cancelled due to possible lack of sanitation. So, we moved the trip to the eastern shore of the peninsula. We were there for three days and saw about 2,500 people. It was very successful, but I still feel that we could have helped most in the region affected by the tsunamis. (VOSH/International is now planning an upcoming trip to the area affected by the tsunami.)

The Road to Rebuild
The hospital has settled down, but the clinic is still wallpapered with pictures of loved ones lost during the tsunamia daily reminder of the magnitude of the tragedy. Patients come into our clinic with red eyesnot from any physical problem, but from crying at the sight of so many pictures.

Strangely enough, a second disasteran economic oneseems likely to follow the natural one. The damage caused by news reports of disasters and illnesses will be more destructive to the economy than the tsunami.

Tourists support the region. The loss of income from visitors will cause a loss of jobs and bankrupt businesses throughout the region. Hotel occupancies are at record lows. Restaurants and other industries are equally affected. Soon, thousands will be unemployed.

How You Can Help
For O.D.s in the United States, I would suggest generous donations to worthy charities that have a history of managing money well. I would also suggest donating your time to efforts such as VOSH and other charity-related events. (Among our recent VOSH group, we had 14 students but no O.D.s.)

But the best method for helping many of these people is to be a tourist in the areas affected. One hopeful sign: Procedures at our LASIK center are starting to pick up again. 

Vol. No: 142:2Issue: 2/15/05