Image: A doctor treats an earthquake victim in the northern Pakistani town of Abbottabad, on Monday.
Lefteris Pitarakis  /  AP
A doctor treats an earthquake victim in the northern Pakistani town of Abbottabad, on Monday.
updated 10/11/2005 6:55:44 AM ET 2005-10-11T10:55:44

It’s late at night when the rains soak through the tents on the hospital lawn. The doctors, volunteers and the terrified patients are drenched, and it seems few places could be more unpleasant.

But at least there’s electricity, and medicine and clean water. There are doctors to treat the injuries of earthquake survivors and volunteers to bring them food. In this part of northwest Pakistan, where some entire towns were leveled by Saturday’s powerful earthquake, Abbottabad is now a haven.

Within hours of the quake, doctors at the Ayub Medical Center had moved their entire operation outside, fearing another jolt could bring the buildings down. They quickly re-created the hospital under a series of large tents normally used for wedding celebrations, moving the various wards to lawns and parking lots.

Hope for tens of thousands of injured
The suddenly chaotic complex, in a town that largely escaped the destruction, is the best hope for tens of thousands of injured people.

“We still have to do whatever we can, but we have to do it outside,” said Hina Khan, a 25-year-old medical intern who smiles despite obvious exhaustion.

Abbottabad, a university town in the hills leading to the Hindu Kush mountains, is about 25 miles from the epicenter of the 7.6-magnitude quake, which killed tens of thousands of people and left many more injured. Only a few dozen people are thought to have died here, and most buildings remain intact.

There was little obvious damage to the sprawling medical center, though many — including most patients and many doctors — worry that the main three-story hospital building sustained structural damage and may be far more flimsy than it appears. So while doctors began officially encouraging patients on Monday to move inside, perhaps 80 percent remained on the lawn into the night.

Now, amid the wail of sirens and the incessant squall of announcements over the hospital loudspeaker, a semi-organized stream of doctors, interns and medical students are treating thousands of quake survivors. The lawns are scattered with the evidence of medical care: bloody cotton swabs, used rubber gloves, metal racks holding empty IV bags.

“Officially I’m a resident in ophthalmology,” said Dr. Farah Shah, working under a green and white tent set up in a parking lot as a makeshift triage center for the flow of taxis, cars, trucks and ambulances disgorging patient after patient. But now, “I’m a general practitioner, I’m a pediatrician. I’m everything.”

Doctors 'doing their best'
Until Monday night, even surgeons were operating in a parking lot, under a tent by the side entrance.

The complex is designed to care for up to about 1,000 people. No one is sure how many patients it has now, but the best guess is about 2,500 have been treated since the quake, “and they’re still coming in,” Shah said.

The nearest other large hospital, in the city of Muzaffarabad, about 20 miles away, was destroyed by the quake.

If the situation is chaotic, no one seems to blame the doctors.

“They’re doing their best for us,” said Wali Rehman, waving his hand over the face of his 7-year-old son, Mohammed, keeping flies from landing on the boy’s scabs.

The pair, who now share a narrow metal cot, are all that remain of a seven-person family. Rehman’s wife and their other four children were killed when their house collapsed, in the badly hit town of Balakot. Rehman survived because he was outside when the quake hit. He managed to dig out only one person: Mohammed.

By late Monday night, under the light of a bright half-moon, the boy was finally sleeping peacefully. He’d been given painkillers, and his left leg — his worst injury — had been X-rayed. A thick blanket kept off the night chill.

Doctors didn’t think the damage was too bad, said Rehman, who was careful to keep his eyes averted from the scene at the next bed, barely six inches away, where a young boy writhed in pain as his father cleaned his urine catheter.'

'Who will take care of all the orphans?'
Mohammed was still confused about what had happened. His father, struggling to contain his own grief, has no idea what to tell him.

“He doesn’t understand what’s going on,” Rehman said. “He still thinks the rest of the family is back at the house.”

Some doctors are already worrying about people like Rehman and his son, wondering what will happen after their wounds have healed.

Dr. Nadeem Zahad, a general practitioner, pointed out a 13-year-old boy who had been brought in. The boy’s family, Zahad said, had all been killed, and he was now paralyzed from the chest down.

“After they’re treated, then where will these people go? What will they do?” Zahad asked. “Who will take care of the orphans?”

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