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Surgeons battle deadly conditions to save lives
Updated: 2005-01-05 01:14

Patients have a choice between screaming pain or death in Indonesia's devastated Banda Aceh, where doctors are battling to save lives without the benefit of anaesthetics.

Foreign surgeons have been forced to operate on screaming patients with only local anaesthetics in unsterile conditions, news reports said yesterday.

"What we did was against our basic training," Singaporean surgeon Francis Seow-Choen told Singapore newspaper The Straits Times.

"There was no sterility. We were using the same instruments on different patients. We were operating on patients who were screaming in pain. But all of us (surgeons) knew we had to do it or the patients would die."

He performed nearly 50 operations within three days in Rumah Kesehatan Tentera, a military hospital on high ground and the only Banda Aceh hospital not destroyed on December 26.

When Seow-Choen walked into the operating theatre, the attending Indonesian surgeon said he and his team had been working non-stop for so long they were dead on their feet.

The injuries Seow-Choen dealt with were described as "ghastly."

One of the men saved had his intestines perforated in two places. There were "huge festering wounds, exposed bone, and another (man) was 'scalped,'" Seow-Choen said.

Indonesian soldiers have been heping to sweep blood from the operating theatre floor.

Seow-Choen and his team helped the soldiers set up a kitchen on the first night and distributed food to patients, who had not eaten for days.

Checking on patients who had been treated, they found that intravenous drips had come off some, while others were running high fevers.

With the arrival of Swedish and more Indonesian doctors, a temporary clinic was set up in an office. There were soon about 1,500 patients. It wasn't the sick or proliferation of dead bodies everywhere that took the greatest toll. "It's the smell of decomposing bodies, of days-old blood, of faeces and urine that kills you," Seow-Choen said.

"You can shut your eyes to the bodies, but you can't shut out the smell." A second team from the city-state arrived with more food, medicine and body bags to take over from the first group, which arrived back in Singapore on Monday.

In its biggest-ever humanitarian relief effort, Singapore has sent 10 helicopters, two landing ships and more than 800 military, police, civil defence and medical personnel to the disaster zone, mainly Indonesia and Thailand.

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