TCGH Staffers Join Disaster Relief Team

March 01, 2005 | Joe Happ

TILLAMOOK—“I’m too crazy to be scared.”

Larry Hamilton, the emergency room manager at Tillamook County General Hospital, had just finished listing some of the places he’s traveled to on emergency medical teams—Mozambique, Honduras, Zaire, to name a few—last week when a visitor asked how he viewed his upcoming trip to tsunami-ravaged Sumatra.

“I haven’t been losing any sleep,” he said.

Hamilton, a registered nurse, is one of four Tillamook County General Hospital staff members bound for the South Asia disaster region with other members of Portland-based Northwest Medical Teams.

Hamilton, emergency room physician Dr. Mark Bowman and physician’s assistant Helen Tennican, left Sunday, Jan. 2, for Sumatra in Indonesia, the hardest-hit area in the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami that killed more than 140,000 people in nine countries.

Otto Gonzalez, an emergency room nurse, is scheduled to leave Jan. 8 for Sri Lanka.

“I know what’s coming,” Hamilton said. “I know how to support a physician under those conditions.”

Bowman said this would be his first time on an emergency medical team and he admitted to some nervousness.

“I’ve lost some sleep over the past few nights,” he said.

None knew exactly where they’d be sent or precisely what type of work they’d be doing. And none could predict what psychological effect the enormity of the disaster—unprecedented numbers of dead and injured and widespread destruction—would have on them.

“But it helps,” Bowman said, “to know we’re not going to be alone in this. Huge numbers of others will also be going in. If I can give a stretch of relief to some overworked Indonesian doctor, it will have been worth it.”

Gonzales said he’s been overseas before, but never on a mission like this.

He’s been to Iraq twice since the outbreak of the war, teaching emergency techniques to Iraqi doctors.

“We’ve done a lot of drills,” Gonzalez said, of the Northwest Medical Teams orientation process.

Gonzalez said he was at the airport in Los Angeles on his way home the day after Christmas when he heard of the disaster.

“I called in from there and volunteered to go,” he said. “The only thing was,” he said with a laugh, “I told them I couldn’t go right then because I didn’t have my passport with me.

The four spent last Thursday (Dec. 30, 2004) in Portland getting the necessary inoculations.

They assume the living and working conditions will be bad.

“They told us to prepare for camp-like conditions—cots, barbed wire,” Bowman said.

The teams bring all their own equipment and medical supplies, he noted, adding that he imagines providing security for all that will be a challenge.

Three of the four are expected to be gone for four weeks; Bowman arranged for a three-week stint.

While he’s gone, he said, the hospital’s four other emergency room doctors will “have to pick up the slack,” working more and longer shifts to cover during his absence.

Northwest Medical Teams is a non-profit organization formed in 1979. Since then it has provided relief in several countries, including Cambodia, Mexico, Honduras, Romania, Ethiopia, and Kosovo.

Despite the unknowns they’re facing, there’s one common denominator, Hamilton said.

“We all believe in God.”