Quake victims' courage inspired volunteer doctors

Published in Chicago Tribune, April 2, 2006


-By Javeed Akhter

For one week in February, my wife, daughter and I, all of us physicians here in Chicago, volunteered in the remote Kashmiri village of Bugna, treating patients at an earthquake relief center.

The road up to Bugna was mostly dirt, with short, sparse stretches of pavement. Vehicles passing each other had to pull to the very edge of the road, often inches away from a drop measuring hundreds of feet.

But the scenery was pure heaven--the snow-covered peaks in the distance, slopes with terraced farms, homes dotted on the most improbable spots.

Once I overcame my fear, I started noticing the tents. They were spread all over the landscape, mostly in ones and twos, although one large collection formed a small city of sorts. A closer look revealed that next to each of these smaller tents there were small homes the quake had destroyed. The winter had been mercifully mild, which had allowed people to resume a semblance of a normal life.

My wife, Naheed, an obstetrician/gynecologist, started seeing patients in a cubicle and, predictably, was inundated. Many were in advanced stages of pregnancy and had not had any prenatal care; all were anemic. Babies are routinely born at home, and my wife had a difficult time convincing even those with obvious breech presentations that they should go to a nearby hospital for their delivery.

My daughter, Sabreen, and wife were impressed at how clean the patients' clothing was and at their overall good hygiene. There have been no epidemics related to the earthquake and consequently no second wave of deaths, according to the World Health Organization. This, I thought, was a remarkable feat given the extreme living conditions.

As we examined this group of polite and stoic people, we realized they were depressed. Even though we are not trained in mental health, the emotional impact of this tragedy was obvious to us.

A sweet little 7-year-old girl shall remain in my memory forever. She had gone to school one day but started having chest pains and was brought to the clinic. I found nothing wrong with her physically and started asking her about her school, grades, teacher and classmates.

The cause of her complaint became obvious when a woman who was with her said: "Her 4-year-old brother died in the quake. Since then she has had chest pains." I sat back stunned, knowing there was little I could do. I tried to make her smile and reassured her.

We were at the camp only a short while, which limited how much we could do for the quake victims. Although our intent was to help them, their courage paradoxically helped us; we were inspired by their valor.

On Friday, I was invited to prayers at a mosque that had been devastated by the quake and was being rebuilt.

The climb up the mountain would have been easier if I had been a mountain goat. When I arrived at the top, out of breath, I found the location stunning. The mosque was a 30-foot-by-40-foot area that had been cleared and the ground covered with carpet, surrounded by a 4-foot-high wall on three sides and topped with a tin roof resting on wooden poles.

The sermon was in progress. "God is what you want him to be, what you imagine him to be," the imam said in Urdu. "He could be one that is powerful and subdues or compassionate and merciful. It is clear that he is everywhere."

He closed the sermon by reminding the congregation of a story the Prophet Muhammad told about a man in search of God. When the man complained to God that he searched for him all his life but could not find him, God said if the man had gone to visit the sick, the needy or the homeless in his neighborhood, he would have found him.

Isn't that what my family is trying to accomplish, I wondered. Weren't we on a quest to find God? Aren't all those who volunteer in disaster relief on the same mission? In some ways it is a very selfish motive.

After the Friday prayers ended, I stood marveling at the setting. I have seen many monumental mosques in the world. Yet the setting of this small mosque was dramatic. It was as if the sky was the ceiling and the distant mountains the walls. The sun was above us, and the valley looked picturesque.

But my eyes kept wandering back to those destroyed homes and the tents next to them. A verse of the Koran kept coming back to my mind. It was as if the valley was echoing with it.

Everything on this earth shall perish

Except the countenance of Thy Lord, majestic and splendid.

(Koran 55: 26-27)

Javeed Akhter, a physician, is a founding member of the International Strategy and Policy Institute, a Chicago-based Muslim-American think tank, and author of the book "The Seven Phases of Prophet Muhammad's Life."

Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune



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