Then the water began its return toward the coast. In Kerala, as in many coastal states, it is common to build a 10-to-15-foot “sea wall” of granite boulders stacked atop one another separating the shoreline from inhabited areas. During high tide the waves crash on the sea wall; this prevents flooding and also erosion of the shoreline. We heard villagers on this sea wall shouting at others to run. I looked up to a remarkable sight: a vertical sheet of ocean, rising higher and higher as it steadily approached. None of us knew what we were to undergo in the following moments. The first and second waves suddenly spilled over the sea wall, pulling huge rocks from the shore and uprooting coconut trees.
Within minutes, the ocean rose again, this time roughly one story high, running along the entire coastline. The water smashed into the building in which I stood. We had left the lower windows open, which may have dissipated the water’s force, inadvertently saving the building from toppling. Still, the compound and the Beach Road beyond it looked like they had been overtaken by whitewater rapids.
The force of the ocean washed away the concrete compound wall, carrying away huts and debris of houses several kilometers into the sea. Power lines came down. The air was filled with the sound of men shouting, women screaming. People were climbing atop the roofs of their houses or swimming quickly through the waters between the surges of the ocean, frantically trying to reach their loved ones.
The water had reached the base of the balcony on which I was standing, and we all waited with bated breath, expecting the building to lurch. But it stood firm. For a moment I mentally thanked every person I had never met who had constructed that building’s foundation so carefully.
By some remarkable grace, there was no fourth wave. We then ran out into waist-deep water, trying to help shocked, disoriented villagers out of their homes and onto higher ground or into shelter. Looking north and south along the roadside, I could see that familiar landmarks such as a local tea stall and several huts had vanished. It was clear from the screaming and cries of the people that many villagers had also disappeared. I guided to safety some terrified children who had just witnessed loved ones drown.
The Mata Amritanandamayi (M.A.) Math’s local charitable hospital, Amrita Kripa Charitable Hospital, is within 300 feet of the area. Due to its proximity to the worst-hit areas and the math’s pre-existing connections with the villagers, volunteers were able to spring into action within minutes. This no doubt saved countless lives. Simultaneous with the evacuation of people inland across the backwaters, medical supplies reached the inland relief centers set up by the Math via canoes and boats. Within hours, word of the tragedy reached Cochin, and by nightfall one of Kerala’s major tertiary care hospitals—Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences—sent ambulances filled with medical supplies and equipment to address our escalating needs.
To treat the ever-increasing numbers of displaced victims, M.A. Math began organizing more relief camps in the local communities. I was stationed promptly at one of the three main centers, a makeshift but nonetheless well-supplied camp at Amrita Ayurveda College. Those who miraculously survived the tsunami often had less emergent but still serious medical problems: pneumonias from aspirating the filthy water, broken bones, and bruises. One of the things I remember most of this period was the efficiency with which relief efforts could work due to the pre-existing infrastructure of primary and tertiary healthcare; it made me realize the direct benefits of all of the work I have seen and participated in here in the United States for these communities. I was suddenly holding in my hand the very IV needle I had seen sorted by so many hands in San Ramon, Calif., and it was directly responsible for someone’s survival. Similarly, I realized how efficiency at the giving end had succeeded in saving many lives; for example, the low overhead cost at San Ramon due to 100 percent volunteer effort translated to more supplies reaching Kerala, which in turn meant we could take care of over 2,000 people in the medical camps daily, knowing that supplies would be continually available. For me this was a reaffirmation of what service to the developing world is all about.
After four days, we were able to discharge all of the patients from medical care. But many survivors had lost everything they owned and had nowhere to sleep. So we converted the medical camps into ongoing shelters where we continued to live, sleep, and eat with the people and share their pain. I felt the sympathy of the world with us and the victims.
We were blessed with volunteers (many from the West who did not speak the local language) who were present unfailingly around the clock to hold hands, to provide a human touch and a caring smile, and to help clean the bedridden.
I am now back at Stanford Medical Center, but the memories remain. One couple stays in my mind. A husband and wife had been brought to the camp for medical attention shortly after they had collapsed after seeing the bodies of their two dead children, aged 11 and 9. As I tended to them, the man at first talked with me about the children as if they were alive. He told me with a fatherly twinkle in his eyes how bright his son was and how he’d be attending medical school someday to become a doctor like me. His daughter, he said, was sweet but mischievous and did not like to study. He was in denial of the painful reality of their loss. I felt it the better part of valor to let him hold on to this dream until he was ready to face the grim truth. I made a point of spending some time each day to let him talk to me about his feelings. What he really needed was an ear and a sincere smile of support in this horrific time.
“They are gone, aren’t they?” he suddenly came and asked me a few days later. As I nodded to him, he shook quietly with tears streaming down his face. We both sat silently like that for some time. I still feel his pain intensely.
Asha Pillai, M.D., works in the Division of Immunology and BMT at Stanford Medical Center. She has been associated with the M.A. Center for 18 years. This story was first published in the Stanford University Medical Center Report.
The effort to help the survivors recon-struct and resume their lives continues. To this end M.A. Math has pledged Rs. 1 billion ($23 million) to provide full financial and educational support for the 300 children in Tamil Nadu who lost both parents, and the widows and families that lost their main breadwinner in several villages in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Sri Lanka, and Andaman and Nicobar Islands. They need the reassurance that this is going to be a reality.
In the Bay Area the M.A. Center presents Waves of Compassion, a benefit for long-term tsunami relief featuring a concert by Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and a video presentation by Asha Pillai about the tsunami and the subsequent relief work.
Fundraiser on Sunday, May 8, 3 p.m. Stanford University. The M.A. Center, a 501(c)(3) organization, needs volunteers to sort and inventory supplies for overseas shipment. To donate services or materials, contact: Lela Kudritzki, In-kind Donations Coordinator, M.A. Center (510) 537-2227. Monetary donations can be made at M.A. Center’s website: www.amma.org. Updates on ongoing relief efforts, are posted on www. Amritapuri.org