Pakistan: Interview with Simon Gelzenleuchter - "It has been exhausting work, but I would do it again anytime"

by Sven Ramones,  2010/11/25

Shortly before he returned to Germany, we had the possibility of holding an interview with Simon Gelzenleuchter. 35 year-old Simon Gelzenleuchter has taken part in the humedica flood relief project in Pakistan, where he has been working as a coordinator for a period of three months.

Simon, you have been part of the humedica mission in Pakistan since its beginning. What was done in order to help the people in the flood regions?

We have worked in Pakistan with a total of seven medical teams. In general, the teams consisted of two doctors and two nurses or hospital orderlies. At the beginning, our mission location was the region surrounding the city of Charsadda, a level area which is crossed by several rivers and where the water partly reached a level of three metres in the streets.

In Charsadda, a school building was changed into a health station for treating patients. Furthermore, we disposed of a mobile hospital which could be taken to remote villages by the team in order to offer medical treatment to the people living there.

On a humedica mission in Pakistan for three months: coordinator Simon Gelzenleuchter. Photo: humedica

We mostly worked at four different locations in the region for two or three days each and treated between 60 and 400 patients per day. We encountered a broad variety of disease patterns. At the beginning we often had to deal with respiratory diseases, while later on skin diseases prevailed.

When the north of Pakistan had mostly been covered by relief organisations, we decided to shift our mission location further south. Wherever you turned, the region surrounding Sukkur was flooded for square kilometres.

During our mission at the refugee camps, we could often only treat persons by night, since they had to work by day. In this case, the police took care of technical issues and the necessary illumination. Also here in the south we had set up our mobile hospitals in cooperation with our local partner Riverside Slum Children Project.

How did the team live when working in the disaster region?

The teams had to be very flexible. There were days when we could not reach particular regions. Then we had to make fast decisions and choose a new mission location. Fortunately, we always received useful support by the regional authorities.

The medical teams treated patients in huts and tents under the simplest conditions. In the right of the picture: Dr Toni Großhauser Photo: humedica

Working conditions often were very difficult for us. In places where the water had retreated, mud and stench remained. There were flies everywhere and heat was extreme all day long. These were the every-day living conditions for the people living in the affected areas.

We were all accommodated at a guest house. Although there hardly was any private sphere due to the close quarters, we lived together in a relaxed way. I am also grateful for the good cooperation with the employees of Riverside Slum Children Project. I was impressed by their motivation for their work and the friendliness they expressed towards us.

Many people needed your help. What were local treatment conditions like?

Health situation at the refugee camps was absolutely crazy. There were no toilets, no clean water and no washing facilities for the people. Therefore they suffered in particular from skin diseases, infected wounds, abscesses and similar complaints. Treating them was tragic work. Children, crying in pain, were everywhere. I could have cried myself.

But the more we enjoyed seeing how the people and above all the children recovered after our treatment. Often, it was midnight until we had treated the last patient. And ever again we found children whose lives we could save. I always was particularly moved by the fate of the children.

Which challenges did you have to face during your mission?

A widespread and serious problem in the south of Pakistan is undernutrition. Although we can offer medical help to the people for a start, their bodies do not dispose of any defences due to the lack of nutrients. Therefore diseases you have only just treated tend to return after a short time.

The undernutrition situation has aggravated in many regions of South Pakistan. The floods have destroyed the crops and therefore many of the people who did not have much to eat even before the flood have even less now.

The weakest ones are those who are suffering most. The humedica teams also brought help to numerous children in Pakistan. Photo: humedica

In order to help the people, we obtained so-called "high power" biscuits via our partners of Kindernothilfe. These biscuits are particularly rich in energy and nutrients. We distributed the biscuits among women and children, since generally they are more prone to undernutrition than men.

We built toilets and washing facilities with the objective of keeping diseases at bay that were caused by the dismal hygienic conditions, we carried through hygiene trainings and distributed water cans and water purification tablets. We set up so-called "Child Friendly Spaces" for the children, where they could spend their time, play and learn without any danger during the day. There, the about 950 children also received a daily lunch.

In cooperation with the organisation Doctors without Borders that was running an undernutrition centre in Sukkur we treated severely undernourished children. The real challenge is in the first place to find the undernourished women and children in order to help them, since the families are by and by returning to their homes.

Which are the personal experiences you have gained on this mission?

I consider this mission to have been one of the most useful things I have done in my life. I think humedica has made an important contribution in Pakistan. Here, where people are without hope, we can offer our help. I am grateful for having been offered this possibility and challenge. I have learned a lot and made friends in Pakistan.

I am grateful for the fact that nothing has happened to us during our mission. Although it has been exhausting work, it has been a valuable experience for me and I would do it again anytime.

Thank you very much for this interview, Simon. We wish you all the best and God's blessings for your future.

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