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Main Aceh Hospital Struggling Along One Month After Tsunami

In the tsunami-devastated province of Aceh, Indonesian authorities are struggling not only to care for the homeless but also to restore basic social services. VOA Correspondent Scott Bobb visited the main hospital in the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, one month after the tsunami struck and has this report on how local staff and foreign volunteers are trying to cope.

It is a hot, humid morning in the emergency ward at Zainoel Abidin Hospital, the main medical facility for Banda Aceh and the province. Dr. Rob Fuller, a volunteer dressed in green scrubs and flip-flops [plastic sandals], is desperately looking for a place to treat a middle-aged woman who was just brought in, unable to walk. "We can try moving her. Thank you very much. It's very disruptive. We're going to try moving her to another place," he said.

Unfortunately, all beds are taken. The tsunami that destroyed the coast of Aceh Province also devastated the hospital, leaving the wards and operating rooms knee-deep in mud. One month since, the hospital has recovered 120 beds of its original 400, but this is not enough. Virtually every other private and public hospital along the coast is in the same condition.

The doctor and some nurses, all volunteers from U.S. hospitals, wheel the sedated patient into what once was the X-ray room. They pull a privacy screen across the door opening and Dr. Fuller swabs the patient's spine with gauze.

He says the lady has either brain tumor or a disease called pseudo-tumor. He needs to carry out a procedure to find out. "She came in confused and not able to walk. In the States either disease would require surgery," he said.

Dr. Fuller says that because the hospital's operating rooms are wrecked, if the woman needs surgery, she will be moved into the German or the Australian military field hospital, whose tents are pitched outside.

All across the Zainoel Abidin Hospital, a sprawling complex the size of a city block, the story is the same. No beds are available and there is no equipment. Computers and sophisticated medical gear lie smashed and muddy, on the soggy grounds outside.

They're also a shortage of staff. Of the hospital's 900 employees, at least 150 were killed by the tsunami. Many others are missing.

Nurse Rebecca Goodman, another American volunteer, finishes examining an elderly lady with diabetes who is lying on a mattress on the floor. "All right, Missy. We're all done," he said.

Nurse Goodman says the shortage of staff is acute. Of the 250 nurses who worked here, only 30 have reported for duty. "We've been able to supply some nurses that can come and give them a little bit more care than they would normally get because of the shortage. Because a lot of the nurses at this hospital, unfortunately, are no longer here," he said.

The large number of foreign volunteers has created another shortage: translators.

Ms. Goodman says more Indonesian doctors and nurses are needed. They communicate better with the patients and have a greater understanding of their cultural sensitivities.

Many Indonesian medical workers have responded to the call. Some of them are staffing the outpatient clinic, which has been set up on a veranda outside the emergency ward. They check blood pressure and vital signs, and decide whether or not a patient should be admitted to the over-crowded hospital.

The director of the hospital, Dr. Rusmunandar, is a pensive man with graying hair. He says when he saw the hospital after the tsunami, he thought it was lost forever. "At that time, I [can] only sit. I don't know what to do. And I think that I nearly [can't] imagine that the hospital can come back again."

Besides the normal patients, the hospital is still treating many victims of the tsunami.

One of these is Ufri, a 54-year-old metalworker who lost his entire family in the disaster. He was swept out to sea, but managed to pull himself onto a large rock, where he spent four days, surviving on rotten fruit, until he was rescued. Ufri says he lost his wife, children, his whole family. His foot is hurt and he cannot walk. He says he does not know what he will do. He has no family, no money, no job.

In the children's ward, babies are being treated with the help of pediatricians from Belgium. Yusnidar is a 16-year-old girl from a village on the western coast. She is hugging her brother, 11 year-old Muzakkir, who is lying on a bed, thin and quiet. When the tsunami hit their village [Lhok Geulumpang], she and two other brothers climbed onto a roof and clung on. But Muzakkir missed the roof and stayed a long time under the water.

Doctors say Muzakkir is suffering from pneumonia, malnutrition and the effects of swallowing large quantities of dirty water.

Yusnidar, her face clouding over, says that both of their parents were killed in the tsunami. She is taking care of the family now.

Dr. Rusmunandar says his top priority is to repair the hospital so it can begin serving the patients again. "We need assistance for training the nurses, at least 100. So we'll need help from other countries or from another part of Indonesia," he said. He adds that millions of dollars of equipment must also be replaced. The German and Australian militaries have promised to help, as well as some non-governmental groups.

He says he hopes in the coming months that there will be more volunteers from Indonesia. If so, he says, maybe in a few months things will begin to return to normal. But it will be a long process, especially to replace the doctors, nurses and staff who were also victims of the disaster.