Asian tsunami: 'In the first days, they needed our help, not our tears'

"For three days I was strong, knowing that I wouldn't be helping anyone otherwise. But on the fourth day I broke down. For 15 minutes as we drove from one location to the next the doctor, the nurse and I all shed our tears. Then it was back to work."

"'The people of Aceh don't need my tears, they need my help'. That's what I thought when I saw the news on Boxing Day. So I packed some clothes and told my husband and children 'I am going to Aceh. MSF will respond to this and I must be ready to go.'

"MSF contacted me that evening and the next morning we all met up in the warehouse. Fortunately many MSF staff from across Indonesia had gathered in Jakarta for Christmas so we had some of our most experienced team members on site. This allowed us to move swiftly and from dawn until midnight we sorted out supplies, preparing for our departure the next day.

"We arrived in Banda Aceh on the evening of the 28th December on a charter plane carrying 3.5 tonnes of relief goods and eight staff. The airport was in chaos. Hundreds of people had gathered there, desperate to get on the next flight out, and plane after plane was trying to land. It was the first time I felt the panic and I had to stop myself getting caught up in it too.

"That night we slept in the airport while two of our team went to check out the city centre. It was difficult to get there - the entire transport system was down - but somehow they managed. When they returned they warned us that the streets were full of the corpses of humans and animals and that we were to prepare ourselves. So I braced myself and focused on the work I needed to do. Sleep did not come easily that night.

"We decided to split into groups. I stayed with a doctor and another nurse to prepare our materials. All of our stock was in pre-packed kits designed by MSF containing whatever we might need in an emergency. We broke these down so that they could be used by mobile clinics. Meanwhile, the others went into town to assess.

"MSF began by checking on hospital facilities and located areas where large numbers of people had assembled into camps. We then consulted with camp chiefs to try to determine what were the most urgent needs and which of these were being met by the local response. The general hospital had been partially destroyed and wasn't functioning.

"A smaller private hospital was managing to treat patients, but its corridors were overflowing and it was very low on stock. Local volunteers were doing what they could to treat the injured in the camps but they had limited experience and very little medicine. There were no other medical aid organisations present - we were the first.

"After receiving a guarantee from the hospital that it would not charge patients for treatment we made a donation of drugs and supplies. We then formed two mobile clinics and set off to the largest camps to start treating patients.

"That first day we saw more than 150 patients in our clinic. Most of these were people with infected wounds caused by the tsunami or by stumbling through the debris afterwards. The consultations were hard. As you treated their wounds, patients would begin to tell you their story. There would always come a point where they would break down and cry.

"For three days I was strong, knowing that I wouldn't be helping anyone otherwise. But on the fourth day I broke down. For 15 minutes as we drove from one location to the next the doctor, the nurse and I all shed our tears. Then it was back to work.

"By the second week the full force of the MSF effort kicked in as more and more staff and supplies arrived. We managed to get a hold of helicopters which enabled us to reach isolated populations on east and west coasts who up until then had received no aid. We used the Greenpeace boat 'The Rainbow Warrior' to ship in even more supplies. And we brought in psychologists to join the mobile clinics so that patients with psychosomatic problems - of which there were many - could receive help too.

"By the time we reached the end of the third week the needs were already changing. Most of the injured and wounded had been treated and we were beginning to see more and more people with problems relating to their poor living conditions rather than the tsunami itself. Aid agencies were also flooding into Banda Aceh which eased the pressure on us. It was time for me to go home although of course there was still so much work to be done. I was exhausted."