Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Lesson — They Can't Save You

"… death toll is estimated at 200,000 … 80,000 buried in mass graves … 2 million homeless."

Those are the reports out of Haiti, 9 days after the earthquake — but it's going to get worse. Some experts are predicting that, unless medical care can be delivered more effectively than is now being done, there could be as many as 20,000 deaths per day from disease and infection in coming weeks.

Make no mistake about it, there are doctors, nurses, paramedics, emergency medical technicians and all sorts of other medical professionals from around the world already on the ground in Haiti. They've been there for days. And there are supplies in abundance, mostly sitting in piles at the damaged airfield where they were dropped off by cargo planes. But the problem is that the supplies are not able to be delivered to the places where they are needed, and the doctors can't work miracles without the equipment and medicines they need to treat the injured and ill.

At one medical mission alone there are more than 500 victims in immediate need of surgery to save their lives. Ordinarily, the mission has a medical staff of 800, but many of them are missing following the quake. Not only that, but the mission is going to run out of food and water as well as gasoline to transport patients.

The U.S Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort has a dozen operating rooms and 1,000 beds, but it is already overwhelmed, as transport helicopters circle overhead waiting their turn to land and offload more victims.

Despite the worldwide effort, the "system" simply cannot get ahead or even begin to catch up with the need for help. And out of all this there are lessons for us to learn.

First — They can't save you. Expecting the government (or even the combined governments of the world) to save you during a disaster is like expecting the local police to save you during a rape. They can't do it. Oh sure, the police will show up later and take a report, but they can't save you from the crisis.

And the same goes for relief organizations. They can't save you from the disaster. They'll come later, maybe much later. But if Haiti and Hurricane Katrina and other such disasters are any indication, those who come to save you might not be able to reach you, or they might not have the equipment or supplies they need. The system becomes broken, totally log-jammed almost immediately. Transportation fails and cannot deliver supplies, lines of communication fail, food and clean water are nowhere to be found, electricity and other forms of power are gone, corruption and lawlessness prevail. It's like a quick trip back into the worst of the dark ages.

So the big lesson is that you must prepare to save yourself. Become trained in emergency medical procedures. Assemble a serious medical kit. Store food, water, medications, and other vital supplies sufficient to see you through the first 72 hours without outside help.

As can be seen from this disaster, 72 hours doesn't even begin to cover it. But at least is you can remain self-sufficient for the first 72 hours, that will give some time for rescue organizations to arrive and get their act together. Maybe. But I wouldn't bet my life on it.

Plan an individual escape route to get you away from the center of population. It's the collapse of society and the hopeless coagulation of the populace that causes the major trauma after the initial disaster. After the ground has stopped shaking and the buildings have stopped falling down, the real problem is that there are so many people in need. They need food. They need water. They need sanitation facilities. They need medical care. They need shelter. And some of them might decide to victimize you to satisfy their needs.

If you can escape from the populace, you can avoid the spread of disease and the lawlessness that tends to run rampant in urban areas following a catastrophe. Set up a safe camp some distance away from the masses. Treat your wounds. Judiciously ration your food supplies. Lay low and conserve your energy, so you don't need to consume so much food and water.

Before a disaster, plan where you would want to set up this camp. Explore your area and decide on a couple of contingency plans to get you out of the city and to a safe location. Do all this in advance, so you don't have to start thinking about it in the midst of the chaos.

Of course, if there are life-threatening injuries that you are not trained or equipped to handle, you will need to seek out professional medical care. But do as much for yourself as possible. That will reduce the burden on the already overburdened relief agencies that are flooding into the area in an effort to help.

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