TALLINN - The disaster-relief team of the Estonian Rescue Board returned Jan. 27 from the tsunami-stricken region of Indonesia. Team leaders considered their first humanitarian mission abroad a "baptism of fire" and said it was a successful and promising landmark for developing the country's international rescue potential.
The 15-strong team left Estonia on Jan. 3 and was joined by 10 more on Jan. 15. In addition to an initial seven tons of equipment, the second part of the team brought 200 kilograms of medicine and other supplies hard to find in Banda Aceh, a town of some 200,000 residents in the northern part of Indonesia.
"We went there with our field hospital to provide trauma medicine and to help relieve the tsunami's direct effects, but as more time passed after the disaster, the more general and routine our medical services became," said Ivar Kaldasaun, head of the rescue board's supervision department.
The team said it provided medical service to 682 patients.
Kaldasaun, who was among the second group of specialists to arrive in Banda Aceh, said the mission was full of opportunities and that the team, formed in 1997, carried many expectations but no direct, personal experience.
Team leader Mart Haljaste called the mission "very successful" and reported that all staff members and equipment were safely back.
The entire mission cost the government about 310,000 euros.
After the disaster, the local hospital and medical institutions were disrupted, forcing international relief teams to support the area's healthcare system. "People did not have normal access to medical services. Many patients were the direct victims of the tsunami, and many were those who got injured during the rescue operations. For example, foot injuries caused by sharp debris were quite common," said Kaldasaun.
As the team was made up of experienced medical staff, there were no cases that couldn't be handled, according to specialists.
"Certainly it was a new experience to receive dozens of patients per day suffering from tetanus, which is extremely rare in Estonia," Kaldasaun noticed.
The team worked in a Banda Aceh hospital emergency department along with Australian medics who were responsible for the hospital's surgery and rehab rooms. Haljaste said that the workload during the 10- to 12-hour days was quite high. "There were quiet moments during the day, but those were a result of local customs and traditions: the prayer time," he said.
Kaldasaun added that rapidly changing environmental factors acted as an extra stress factor. "Heat, humidity, cultural and religious differences, people with guns everywhere 's some patients did not let go of their rifles while on the stretcher," he said. "The picture we saw every day 's the destruction - was very depressing and made the work environment more complicated."
Yet attempts were made to ease morale. Haljaste said that cooperation with local authorites, according to a police doctor from Jakarta, became smooth once the Estonian medics demonstrated their professionalism.
"The trust of the locals was also very high, people could bare their soul to us foreigners. People brought us local fruits, approached us on the streets as they knew who we were from our uniforms and thanked us for the good work," said Haljaste.
Both specialists agreed there was still a lot of work to be done but doubted the team would return to Asia, as its core mission focused on rapid reaction and disaster medicine, not prolonged humanitarian assistance.
"Long humanitarian missions cost a lot of money. As we were leaving Banda Aceh we saw teams of 100 people and more from large countries like Germany coming with their own field hospitals. That is very expensive, and only large countries or international organizations like Doctors Without Borders or the Red Cross can afford that," said Kaldasaun.