Kerala's angels: A saga of three women doctors in the time of floods

Kerala's angels: A saga of three women doctors in the time of floods
Meet Shinu Syamalan, Shimna Azeez and Ashwathi Soman who take care of the medical needs of flood and landslide victims.
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Kerala saw a huge mobilisation of volunteers when floods and landslides hit State last week. They set up camps, collected relief materials and ensured the well-being of the survivors.

Among them were three young women doctors – Ashwathi Soman, Shimna Azeez and Shinu Syamalan. They live in different parts of the State. But what binds them together is their readiness to serve the people in distress.

Ashwathi led a team to help Adivasis affected by the landslides in Nilambur in Malappuram district, while Shimna supervised the activities at the medicine collection and distribution centre in Manjeri, also in Malappuram. Shinu orgnaised a medical help desk at Kavalappra, the worst landslide-hit village in the state.

Ten days after they began their service, the three doctors shared their experiences – difficulties they faced and worries they have - with Onmanorama.

Ashwathi's adventurous trek

Ashwathi, who hails from Kozhikode, spent many sleepless nights after the landslides at Nilambur and adjoining areas in Kerala's Malappuram district on August 8.

Kerala's angels: A saga of three women doctors in the time of floods
Dr Ashwathi Soman with her team of physicians and mobile dispensary at Nilambur, Malappuram.

For the Tribal Medical Officer attached to the Mobile Dispensary Unit at Nilambur, a government project, was on a mission to rescue Adivasis stranded inside the forests and top of the mountains.

"Landslides cut off the link between tribal hamlets and the mainland. Hence Adivasis were forced to live without food and water. But co-ordinated action helped us provide good medical care," she said.

Ashwathi and his team risked their lives to provide medical care at the marooned tribal hamlets. They trekked through the slippery forest and swung on to the ropes to reach there. She described it as 'an adventurous, but gratifying effort.'

Though the rains have subsided, Ashwathi's workload has not reduced even a bit. She still travels to the relief camps, co-ordinates distribution of medicines and interacts with survivors who saw death face to face. "Survivors who still live in fear need special attention to overcome their mental trauma," she said.

Kerala's angels: A saga of three women doctors in the time of floods
Dr Ashwathi Soman

From her experience, she said the landslide survivors in Kavalappara, the worst landslide-hit village in Kerala where the 62 people are believed to have died, will take at least a decade to recover from the mental trauma.

To make her point, she described her interaction with a young boy who saw the deaths of his elder brother and grandmother. "He has not slept for days after the tragedy," she said.

The scenario, she says, is worse in Adivasi colonies. "We took many Adivasis to the relief camps. But some of them have already gone back to the forest as they found it difficult to mingle with others," she said.

Ashwathi said doctors who are out on the field also need counselling. "Forensic surgeons who are conducting autopsies are the worst-affected as they deal with dismembered bodies," she said.

Shimna too needs counselling

Dr Shimna Azees is a lecturer in community medicine at Government Medical College, Manjeri, her home town. She supervised all the activities at the medicine collection and distribution centre at the Manjeri Boys Higher Secondary School.

Kerala's angels: A saga of three women doctors in the time of floods
Dr Shimna Azeez with the volunteers.

She gave trauma counselling for the landslide survivors as well as members of the rescue team. And she vouches that the trauma inflicted by the landslides is heavier than that last year's floods. "Landslides destroyed everything in a fraction of second. People witnessed deaths of their relatives. They also saw their possessions falling apart. It would take a long time for them to get over the trauma," she said.

"During the floods, people could see the gradual rise in water level."

Kerala's angels: A saga of three women doctors in the time of floods
Medicine collection and distribution in progress at the Manjeri Government Boys Higher Secondary School in Malappuram.

Having served at the relief camp, Shimna knows scores of people struggling to cope with the trauma. "A young woman came to me with her three-year-old son. The boy was shivering with fever and couldn't utter a word. He was frightened because he saw his mother's scream when the rescuers pulled dead-bodies near their collapsed house."

Shimna also met a five-year-old boy, who saw his mother being washed away by a current of mud. "I don't know how these kids are going to recover from the shock. I am worried about their fate. Post traumatic depression is the most important medical risk Kerala will face," she said.

Kerala's angels: A saga of three women doctors in the time of floods
Dr Shinu Syamalan consoling flood and landslide victims at Kavalappara, Wayanad.

Shimna says she is now gearing upto consult a counsellor. "I am tired. It is difficult to withstand the mental stress when your fellow beings are in trouble," she said.

Shinu warns of viral infections

Shinu Syamalan, who hails from Thrissur and is a doctor attached to the Primary Health Center at Pulimgome in Kannur, rushed to Kavalappara village with a backpack full of medicines and first-aid materials immediately after the landslides. She co-ordinated with the district administration and set up a medical help desk at the village.

Kerala's angels: A saga of three women doctors in the time of floods
Dr Shinu Syamalan with the flood and landslide victims at Kavalappara, Wayanad.

Shinu felt that landslide survivors suffered minor injuries and there is no need to provide them intensive care. "However, care should be taken against viral infections and of leptospirosis outbreak at the relief camps. Bacterial infections and viral attacks might do rounds in the camps. Frequent exposure to contaminated water may cause athlete's foot, a fungal infection that begins between the toes."

Kerala's angels: A saga of three women doctors in the time of floods
Dr Shinu Syamalan with Wayanad sub collector Umesh Kesavan in a flood relief camp at Kavalappara.

Thousands of leptospirosis cases were reported after the floods in August 2018, she said. "Some even resulted in deaths. So we have to be very careful," she said.

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