I've been in Chengdu, Sichuan Province's capital and home to ten million people, for a few days now. This city lies more than 100 kilometers from the epicenter of last week's 7.9-magnitude earthquake, but still suffered significant casualties and damage.
Mercy Corps is here assessing how we can best meet the immediate needs of survivors, as well as help communities rebuild in the long-term. These are only the first steps in what will almost certainly be a lengthy disaster response.
Yesterday I ventured out into the city to gauge the mood with my colleague, Mercy Corps Program Officer Guo Xin. A native of Sichuan, Guo Xin tells me that people in Chengdu stayed outside for two days straight after the earthquake for fear that buildings would collapse on them.
We set out through city streets to the West China Hospital complex at Sichuan University. This is the hospital where many of the most seriously injured victims of the earthquake have been taken for treatment. What we found was a grim scene. Carefully typed pages of hundreds of patient names hang on display boards. Anxious relatives gathered around, searching desperately for the names of missing children, siblings, parents and friends.
Guo Xin is intrepid. She led me inside the hospital, hastily asking passersby where we could find the earthquake survivors. We followed a crush of bodies into the elevator and found ourselves in ward 32.
There's a reason I'm not a doctor: the sights, sounds and smells of physical human suffering make me queasy. And there I was in the middle of it all.
Ward 32 is where the earthquake victims with bone injuries land for treatment and surgeries. The hospital is clean and well-lit but the ward is currently bursting at the seams. Most rooms hold five patients, and even more patients line the halls. All look exhausted and pained, with head-to-toe cuts and bruises — like they've been in the fight of their lives.
As we headed down to the nurses' station, a middle-aged woman was wheeled past us on a hospital bed. Obviously in pain, she had one leg wrapped and pinned, and the other tucked under her bed sheet. Strange, I thought, how that sheet lies flat even though her leg's under it — then I realized that her leg wasn't there at all. Amputees, I later discovered, are common in ward 32.
A kind young doctor with a crisp British accent led us into the room of a young woman who had been trapped under the rubble of her school. She looked tired, shy and hurting. But she was surprisingly willing to engage with us, total strangers.
The young woman — 18-year-old Jia Xuejiao — is in 12th grade at Yin Xiu high school, close to the quake's epicenter in Wenchuan County. She was in history class when the earthquake struck. In a matter of seconds, her fifth-floor classroom hit the ground as the entire building collapsed.
"I was totally scared. The building was shaking and I didn't know what was going on. I just felt strange," she recounted. "I heard my classmates yelling, calling for help but I couldn't see them."
Buried by rubble and other building parts, Jia Xuejiao was dug out by a fellow student, who carried her on his back to safety in a nearby mountainous area. She languished there for two days without food or water, and with her head, back and foot injuries left untreated. She was later airlifted to West China Hospital.
Jia Xuejiao's body appeared battered — and she was propped up and motionless, betraying some kind of neck injury. I looked down at her left foot, which was held still and hidden under a thick layer of gauzy wrap. She explained that her foot was injured and had become severely infected. She had already had one surgery, and would probably require two more including a skin graft.
Jia Xuejiao is one of the lucky ones. She told us that, of her class of 48, only one student had died and three were severely injured. Guo Xin and I glanced at each other with nervous, knowing looks. Jia Xuejiao had been on the fifth and highest floor of the building. We could only speculate what unhappy end had met the young people in floors one through four.
Jia Xuejiao is one of the 245,000 people injured in last week's earthquake. Some of the injured are still stuck in areas that are difficult to access, where medical supplies and personnel can't yet reach them. Others are in hospitals like the one Guo Xin and I visited. For many, the long road to recovery is just beginning.