Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation

Jun 06th
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More Than a Doctor

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More Than a Doctor
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The ocean is dotted with fishing boats again. They gently rock within its cradle, as helpless as a sleeping infant held softly in its mother's arms. Throughout history, these people have always unburdened their needs and worries to the mother-like ocean. But to whom can they now confide when their grief and sorrow stems from the ocean's terrible power?

As medical practitioners, doctors are trained to use their stethoscopes to listen for signs of physical ailments. But as true healers, they must also listen for the darker, unspoken pains.

All along the road, one can see tatters of torn clothing caught on tree branches, flapping and fluttering in the wind. These eerie rags resemble the funeral banners hung outside Taiwanese homes following a death in the family. On the remnants of a crumbling wall, scribbled contact details of many survivors are scrawled. They left their names, addresses and the phone numbers of temporary shelters and locations in the hope that they will be found by their missing family members or recognized by someone who may know where they are. There are a few people standing around, facing a large heap of rubble, looking dazed as they search for something that is no longer there. Others have set up small tents, prepared to face whatever hardships life will bring their way tomorrow. But for the injured, or for those whose tools of livelihood were completely destroyed, tomorrow is too far and too frightening a concept to even contemplate.

A medical post was set up by Tzu Chi in Hambantota, where some of the most severe damage occurred. Eighteen days after the tsunami struck, a sixty-year old retired government employee by the name of Doole showed up at the medical post looking for help. He appeared unusually calm, but it only made his effort to conceal his catastrophic experience all the more poignant.

Dr. Wu Kun-ji of the Hualien Tzu Chi Medical Center gasped in horror when he slowly drew back the gauze on Doole's leg. "Oh! My..." When the tsunami came, Doole was struck by a steel plate which left a deep gash on his lower leg. Without prompt and proper medical attention, the wound had become infected. Dr. Wu removed the festering tissues immediately. For Doole however, this was the least of his agonies. His wife and six daughters had all been killed by the tsunami. Now he and his youngest son were living with relatives. After being treated at the medical post, Lin Tsui-lien and several other Tzu Chi volunteers accompanied him back to where his home had once stood.

Doole said that over 220 homes in his neighborhood had been destroyed by the tsunami, and now where there used to be places full of people with familiar names and faces, only large piles of rubble remained. There was so much destruction around us that we could barely comprehend the extent of this seemingly infinite wreckage. When Doole got out of the car, he walked in front of us to lead us to his house. He walked with haste as if he were not suffering from his injuries, and he repeatedly kept hitting his head with his hand as if trying to knock the reality and memory of what had happened out of his skull.

According to Doole, Islamic funeral rites call for the bodies of the deceased to be wrapped and buried in white cloth. Not being able to bury his wife and daughters properly would be the greatest regret of his life.

He pointed to three coconut trees and gestured where his two houses used to be. "This was my kitchen, my living room..."

He explained that his wife and he had been married for 26 years. They had inherited and lived in her father's house, where they worked hard together for many years to build a happy family. In a flash, the results of all that effort and care had been snatched away.

Doole hated the thought of being a burden to his relatives or friends. However, erecting a new house of his own would cost at least 350,000 rupees (US$3,500). Yet since he had retired from his government job, his monthly pension was only 6,500 rupees (US$65). Therefore, having his own home was a notion far beyond the realms of possibility, especially since he also had the added expense of his youngest son's education to contend with.

"This is the will of Allah," Doole said quietly, trying to convince us, when really it was clear that he was trying to convince himself as well, for this was the only acceptable explanation he could stomach. He continued by saying that Allah had taken his wife and children away so that he would be reminded to lead a more meritorious life.

The time on a clock caught in the shattered window of another house was frozen at 9:21. A small boy lingered alone on top of where his home and family had once thrived, his gaze revealing an anguish as tortured as his shadow on the rubble.

The wife of one of Doole's neighbors broke down sobbing on Lin's shoulder, because she had lost 14 members of her family in the disaster...

"It feels like time has stopped, but only God knows how much suffering has just begun," Lin remarked.

Since December 29 of last year, one Tzu Chi group after another has arrived in Sri Lanka. Tzu Chi's Medical Disaster Survey and Assessment Teams have been made up of members of the Tzu Chi International Medical Association and volunteers from Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, the United States, and Canada. This unceasing relay has carried out its daunting mission without interruptions, and as of February 3, 2005, a total of five teams had helped more than 27,000 patients during 35 days of free medical clinics.

At the medical stations set up by Tzu Chi, volunteers meticulously listened to and documented the damage situation and needs of each of the visiting tsunami victims. Afterwards, they extended their continuing care through home visits to the elderly or needy people living on their own.

Medical team volunteers also went on foot, carrying what medical supplies they could, to the homes of tsunami victims. They not only treated victims' physical wounds, but also listened patiently and let them pour out their tormented stories, as well as trying their best to understand their patients' needs. Furthermore, the volunteers comforted and consoled the victims, helping them regain some strength and courage to get back on track with their lives again.

Susilawathi, 60, had lost her husband in the tsunami and had been consumed by grief ever since. Her son pleaded with Tzu Chi volunteers to help her. He explained that his mother wouldn't even go outside the house anymore, she had stopped eating or drinking, and she couldn't sleep throughout the night at all.

Following the son's instructions, volunteers walked through the narrow corridor of the family's sundry shop and into the living room in the back of the building. There sat Susilawathi, her head sunk in despondency, by her side a picture of her late husband, whom she could see with her eyes but could never touch again.

After asking Susilawathi about her health, Dr. Chang Yin-shou, a pediatrician from Hualien Tzu Chi General Hospital, gently picked up her hand and asked, "Can you stand up?" The old woman stood slowly. Dr. Chang then asked again, "Can you take a few steps forward?" One small step after another, Dr. Chang tactfully persuaded and led Susilawathi out of the house and into the warmth of the sunshine, hoping that the familiar sounds of cars and people coming and going would help open her weary heart.

Several curious children gathered in front of the sundry shop. On an impulse, Dr. Chang said to the children, "Where are your friends? Go fetch them, quick! This nice granny has candy for all of you!"

Being a pediatrician herself, Dr. Chang knew all too well the magical power that candy has on children, and in turn the wonderful effect that children's smiles have on herself, so she was confident that the same magic would work on Susilawathi. She quickly rounded up the candy brought by the volunteers and handed them to Susilawathi to give to the children. Sure enough, seeing the expectant joy on the children's faces, the stiffened lines on the old woman's face began to break open in gentle kindness.

Losing her lifelong partner and friend had left Susilawathi in the depths of inconsolable grief. Her son, worried for her well-being, had asked Tzu Chi volunteers for their help. Dr. Chang's "candy magic" worked wonders on Susilawathi and opened her heart.

Dr. Chang told Susilawathi that it was customary in Taiwan to seal a pact with a friend by locking each other's pinky fingers together. "We have a pact to meet tomorrow at the Tzu Chi medical station, OK?" Susilawathi locked her little finger with Dr. Chang's.

The next morning, the old woman, accompanied by her son, arrived at the Tzu Chi medical station, just as she had promised. Her gloom from the day before had been replaced with a polite smile. Dr. Chang walked up and gave her a hug, as did Tzu Chi volunteer Lin Tsui-lian, and they both showered Susilawathi with encouraging words. "Your son was really worried about you. You must try not to sink further. You wouldn't want your husband, who is resting in peace, to worry, would you?"

It is never easy consoling someone who is mourning the loss of a loved one. With Susilawathi's reserved and unexpressive nature, it was hard to imagine how much torment she had suppressed inside of her heart. Even so, she still had room for the volunteers' caring words, even though tears welled up in her eyes from moment to moment and many greetings were answered with only a faint smile, as if she were constantly trying to adjust her state of mind.

Then suddenly, Susilawathi opened up and let out the anguish that she had kept inside. She was not alone with her tears, as a local volunteer serving as an interpreter was also visibly moved and had to pause before continuing again.

Susilawathi had also been suffering from insomnia and some other problems, so Dr. Chang referred her to Dr. Lin Shinn-zong, the superintendent of Hualien Tzu Chi Medical Center, who always has a big smile plastered on his face. Dr. Chang hoped that Dr. Lin's amicable and positive personality would bring some sunshine into Susilawathi's heart.

Dr. Lin introduced Susilawathi to a local volunteer interpreter who was serving in the medical examination room. He explained that the interpreter had also lost members of his family in the tsunami, but he had chosen to emerge from his own suffering and help his fellow countrymen in need. Other than giving Susilawathi a prescription, Dr. Lin also offered her a blessing for a quick recovery from her physical pain and emotional suffering, plus an invitation: "Come on, let's help those in need... together."

Sumanthra, 45, was in the business of selling salt. As a result of the tsunami, he lost his wife, three daughters, and seven other relatives. When the tidal wave came, his nine-year-old son Mushan clung to a piece of driftwood; he was discovered and rescued two days later. Their home was destroyed in the disaster, so they were staying with Sumanthra's brother.

Sumanthra had a soft-spoken, gentlemanly demeanor. He had been to Malaysia and was fluent in both Malay and English. Tzu Chi volunteer Lin Tsui-lian, who was from Singapore, was able to converse with him in Malay and make him feel more at ease.

"I'm more worried for Mushan," Sumanthra said. Of his wife and the three daughters that had perished in the tsunami disaster, only his 18-year-old daughter's body had been found. When nighttime fell, he would hear his son repeatedly ask, "Where's Mommy? Where are my sisters?"

What Mushan wanted to comprehend was much more than the details of where his mother and sisters had literally gone, but who would have the heart to explain to him what death is actually all about?

Gazing sympathetically at Mushan, suddenly it dawned on the volunteer--Mushan was the same boy they'd spotted wandering aimlessly near Doole's seaside house.

Tzu Chi volunteers recalled seeing Mushan that afternoon in his shirt, shorts and white cap, just pacing to and fro in front of a destroyed home. He would stare desolately at the ground, then look out to the open sea as if hoping that it would provide him with an answer. He held a playing card in his hand, which he tore up into shreds a moment later.

Dr. Hong You-ming, internal medicine specialist at Hualien Tzu Chi General Hospital, discovered that the wounds on both of Mushan's legs had not yet scabbed over, so he took out his first-aid kit and dressed the wounds. Then he held Mushan close to him and wrapped his arm around the young boy's shoulder, trying to console his young, tormented soul.

Dr. Hong, a father himself, is a spirited person with a child-like face. When he first heard how Mushan had been searching for his mother, his eyes welled up with tears. But he knew he had to contain his sorrow if he wanted to adequately console another person's grief, so he told himself to try and make Mushan smile, "I can be your big brother."

Everyone tried to shower Mushan with care and love, but his eyes were still lowered and silent, with all traces of any previous boyish innocence gone.

"What do you like?" volunteer Lin Tsui-lian asked shyly, hesitant to pry open any wounds in the young boy's heart. Little did she expect that her question could actually get a gleam in his eyes and a trace of a smile on his face. Mushan began talking about his fondness for sports and playing with marbles...

Oh, how the volunteers wished they could have grabbed a box of marbles out of thin air and given it to Mushan right away, so that he might be distracted from the incessant pain of losing his mother!

After the volunteers explained to Sumanthra how to use the family first-aid kit given by Tzu Chi and apply the medication on Mushan's wounds, they bid farewell and prepared to go visit other survivors. Sumanthra took out a bottle of sandalwood oil and gave it to the volunteers to show his appreciation. He thoughtfully applied some of it on each of the volunteers' hands as a gesture of blessing.

When the volunteers turned for the last time to wave to the father and son, Mushan had already climbed onto a fence, with a clear and focused gaze in his eyes. He continued to look at the volunteers until they had disappeared from view.

Ensconced on a chair in the living room, Yasawathee, eight months pregnant, looked totally drained of spirit. When her mother-in-law came through to join her, she too looked equally sorrowful and despondent. When the tsunami came, Yasawathee's husband and father-in-law were both out selling goods at the weekend market as usual. They did not manage to escape in time. Now there were two widows within the family. But for the mother-in-law, who had lost both her husband and her son, the grief was even more unbearable.

Dr. Li Yi-gung, director of the emergency room at Dalin Tzu Chi General Hospital, and nurse Chen Miao-wen decided to give Yasawathee a simple prenatal examination after learning that she had never had one in all of the eight months she had been pregnant. "This is the baby's head, do you know that?" Not seeing a trace of joy or anticipation on Yasawathee's face, even though this would be her first child, they tried to remind her that even though she had lost her husband, she would soon have her newborn, who would need her care and love very much.

"Your husband and father-in-law must be hoping that you will have a smooth delivery, so you must take good care of yourself, okay?" Volunteer Lin Tsui-lian consoled Yasawathee with a hug. "If you cry, your baby inside your tummy will cry, too. But if you're happy, your baby will be happy with you. We trust you will be a very good mother."

The knot between Yasawathee's brows began to loosen, and sudden tears streamed from her eyes as her bottled-up emotions finally found a release. A rare smile appeared on her face as she thanked the volunteers for their encouragement.

"I know your family members love you very much, and we love you, too. You're not alone." Before they left, the volunteers gave Yasawathee some milk powder and nutritional biscuits, plus they also reassured her that Tzu Chi would be making relief distributions in the area continually, so she need not worry about not having enough food after her baby was born.

Dr. Li Yi-gung, who has seen more death and tears in his emergency room than the average person has in a lifetime, is often dubbed the "ER Steel Man." But moments after leaving Yasawathee's house, the Steel Man broke into tears.

Dr. Li said that Yasawathee's plight reminded her of her own mother. Dr. Li was only six years old when her father passed away. "I know how hard life will be for this single mother and her child, because I went through it myself when I was young."

Her similar fate made her more sensitive than most people to the feelings and sufferings of those in similar circumstances. Although coming from a distant land and a different culture, Dr. Li understood more than anyone what the care of Tzu Chi volunteers means to a young widow at a tough time like this.

During brief breaks from tending to patients, Dr. Li Yi-gong visited a Buddhist temple across from the Tzu Chi medical station. Inside the temple, he found murals depicting the life story of the Buddha from birth to nirvana. He photographed the two sections depicting the Buddha tending to the sick and the Buddha attaining enlightenment under a bodhi tree.

"Before we set out from Taiwan, Master Cheng Yen reminded all of us to help propagate the dharma [the Buddha's teachings]. Today, I finally understood what it meant to propagate the dharma--we can do it by letting our innate humanitarian spirit spring forth completely in times of tragedy like this, because everyone has the capacity and wisdom to help others and show love for one another."

Dr. Li explained, "The Buddha attained enlightenment under a bodhi tree, so where should doctors attain enlightenment?" He answered firmly, "In the midst of disasters!"

When Taiwan suffered a devastating earthquake on September 21, 1999, Dr. Li joined an emergency medical team to help quake victims. Ever since then, he has continuously cared about the post-quake recovery effort in central Taiwan, hoping those he had helped will emerge from their suffering into a better tomorrow.

And although Hambantota is thousands of miles from Taiwan, Dr. Li clings to the same hope for those he helped there, wishing that one day when he returns to that distant land again, he will see those friends afar smiling again in better days.

By Yeh Wen-ying
Translated by John Ueng
Photographs by Lin Yen-huang


" The ocean can be filled, yet the tiny mouth of a human being can never be filled. "
Jing-Si Aphorism

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